Future Brightens for the Salton Sea’s Lithium Valley 

By Published On: September 30, 2021

Prospects are the brightest they’ve been since the beginning of a years-long effort to create a domestic supply of lithium from the Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea. Imperial Valley lithium has the advantage of being extracted from the brine processed by the geothermal plants on the Sea’s southern shore, which will also power the technology. The new industry also holds the possibility of creating needed jobs in Imperial County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in California. Economic prospects for the area would be even better if battery and electric vehicle manufacturers co-locate next to the geothermal plants, project proponents said at a Sept. 30 public meeting.

This part of Imperial County, dubbed Lithium Valley, “couldn’t have more wind in its sails,” Lithium Valley Commission member Tom Soto said. He pointed to strong support from the California Energy Commission, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, and President Biden. Soto and others also pointed to possible funding in the final language of the pending $3.5 billion federal infrastructure package if it passes.

The lithium commission, formed by legislation in 2020, includes 14 members representing a range of interests, from geothermal plant developers, state utility regulators to tribal and community representatives.

Three geothermal companies, backed by government grants, have been working on a model for sustainable commercial recovery of lithium, in contrast to traditional mining.

Currently, the geothermal plants at the Salton Sea lift steaming briny water from the Earth to extract the heat. Lithium developers want to intercept the brine before it is pumped back underground in order to remove the lithium. If their projects become scalable, it would vastly reduce the carbon footprint of lithium production, which now primarily comes from environmentally-damaging mining and evaporative processes overseas.

Cameron Perks, with Benchmark Minerals, told the committee Thursday afternoon that rising demand for lithium to power electric vehicles and energy storage is expected to lead to a shortage of lithium supplies by 2030. “We will need as much lithium as we can get our hands on.”

State and federal funders hope grants will help reveal the best way to extract the lithium. Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables operates 10 of the 11 existing geothermal plants, with a total 345 MW of capacity, and is working on a pair of projects. One is backed by a $6 million CEC grant and will use an extremely fine filter to trap the metal. The other, supported by a $15 million Department of Energy grant, intends to convert recovered lithium into lithium hydroxide for use in batteries. Another company, Controlled Thermal Resources, is building both a new 50 MW geothermal steam generator and new extraction plant that will flow brine over ceramic beads to capture the lithium. It received a $1.45 million CEC grant to produce what it says will be 99.99% battery-grade lithium. A third company, Energy Source Minerals, has a 50 MW geothermal facility that will be the source of the lithium it recovers by adsorption. It is backed by a $2.5 million CEC grant.

Each company expects to bring pilots online next year. The element lithium is considered critical for batteries used in electric vehicles, large and small, and energy storage projects. Storage, including grid-scale and behind-the-meter, represent about 10% of the demand for lithium ion batteries.

But there are huge challenges to scaling up the demonstration projects given the complexity entailed in extracting out lithium from brine that holds up to 30% solids, which are a wide range of elements, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

However, the hope is that the one or all of the demonstration projects will lead to operating commercial facilities by 2024.

There also is a big push to get battery makers, particularly cathode manufacturers, and EV manufactures, to build plants in Lithium Valley.

That would lead to the “lowest possible carbon footprint in the Lithium Valley,” Danny Kennedy with Next Energy Nexus, said.

However, there currently are no domestic cathode manufacturers.

Jonathan Weisgall, Berkshire Hathaway Energy vice president of government affairs, stressed the need for siting cathode manufacturers nearby, in particular. “It’s a heck of a challenge” to commercially produce battery-grade lithium from the Salton Sea, he said. “But if we ship everything overseas, we haven’t accomplished much.”

Photo: Courtesy of Berkshire Hathaway Energy

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