Could The Salton Sea Produce The World’s Greenest Lithium?
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Could The Salton Sea Produce The World’s Greenest Lithium?

Could the Salton Sea produce the world’s greenest lithium? Considering the billions of dollars being invested in harvesting it in conjunction with a dozen geothermal energy plants there and a planned gigafoactory to manufacture electric battery cells, the answer looks like yes. And this could be huge for the EV industry.

The Salton Sea is a massive 443 square mile lake 17 miles north of the American/Mexican border, in the Imperial Valley. It is a body of water that was fed by the Colorado River over millions of years, and was once highly fertile farmland before becoming a very popular resort destination in the 1950s and 60s. However, environmental warnings from scientists in the 1970s indicated that the lake would shrink and become inhospitable to wildlife. 

Pesticides and fertilizers from nearby agriculture leaking into the water, combined with the high salinity and having great conditions for algae blooms led to massive die-offs of fish and birds in the 1980s and turned the once vibrant resort into a ghost town.

Despite these challenges, the Salton Sea is located on the San Andreas fault, providing ample geothermal energy beneath its surface. With 11 geothermal energy plants, including 10 owned by BHE Renewables (Berkshire Hathaway Energy) and one by EnergySource, these facilities can generate enough power to supply 350,000 homes – seven times the number of homes in the Imperial Valley area. There’s one more plant planned. 

The EnergySource geothermal plant Hudson Ranch.

Currently, these plants use brine heated by magma under the surface to generate energy. Because of the rich mineral deposits, there is a significant amount of lithium within this brine. The geothermal power plants bring up this brine to create steam to make electricity, but have not been extracting lithium from the process. Instead, they’ve simply returned it to the ground. 

However, the upcoming investment from BHE Renewables, EnergySource, and Controlled Thermal Resources could produce up to 600,000 tons of lithium annually, surpassing current worldwide production levels of less than 400,000. The extraction process promises to be environmentally friendly and less water-intensive.

Controlled Thermal Resources is building its first plant, investing $1 billion to provide 20,000 tons of lithium to General Motors by the beginning of 2024. In addition, Italvolt, an Italian EV battery maker, is constructing a $4 billion gigafactory called Statevolt, which will produce lithium-ion batteries for 650,000 electric vehicles per year.

Overall, the estimate for the production of lithium in the Imperial Valley could support EV production in the millions. Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, said as production of lithium in Imperial Valley scales up they’ll make enough of it to support 5 million electric vehicles per year.

“With those 5 million EVs, on the road we lose 1.95 billion gallons of gasoline per year. That’s equivalent to 23 million metric tons of co2 from exhaust pipe emissions,” Colwell said.

The benefits to the Salton Sea area include the potential for cleanup and increased employment opportunities in a region with high unemployment rates. There will be an estimated 10-12,000 green jobs added, sourcing the labor from the Imperial Valley residents. BHE Renewables CEO Alicia Knapp recognizes the importance of investing in the community and providing economic development and job opportunities, while acknowledging the significance of lithium as an essential resource.

Governor Newsom recently visited the site, and said that the tax collected from lithium recovery will go back to the community with 80 percent going right back into Imperial County while the other 20 percent will go toward Salton Sea environmental mitigation.

These operations at the Salton Sea:

  • Could add as many as 10-12,000 jobs in the area
  • Could provide enough lithium to produce batteries for 5 million electric cars per year
  • Could clean up the area


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