Lithium and Geothermal – Balm for a Shrinking Sea?


Salton sea boat


EL CENTRO – As the Salton Sea shrinks, the Imperial Irrigation District hopes to generate money to help remedy the lake’s looming environmental problems by leasing land along the shores for companies to tap a wealth of geothermal power, solar energy and minerals.

A study prepared for the IID projected that such projects could generate more than $4 billion over the next 30 years. But even as the report was presented to the water and power agency’s board at a meeting in El Centro on Tuesday, officials acknowledged criticism that some of the projections may be overly optimistic. They stressed that big hurdles remain for plans to attract renewable energy businesses, and reiterated that the state is ultimately responsible for mitigating the bulk of the environmental impacts caused by the nation’s largest farmland-to-urban water transfer.

The report prepared by EES Consulting estimates that $4.1 billion in revenues could be collected between 2016 and 2045 from geothermal and other renewable energy projects, as well as from recovering valuable minerals such as lithium.

“Some of the early criticism I’ve heard of this report is that well, you know, it’s just too rosy an outlook. And that may well be. There is certainly some blue-sky thinking, or at least possibility thinking involved here,” IID General Manager Kevin Kelley told the board after the report was presented. “But it fills a vacuum and it takes the place of basically nothing. And if there are revisions to be made … we’re all for it.”

The lake is shrinking and becoming saltier due to a decline in agricultural runoff, a situation that is threatening habitat for migratory birds and is expected to create a health hazard as increasing amounts of dust waft from the exposed shorelines.

Water levels are expected to fall faster after 2017, when a water transfer deal, the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), goes into effect, cutting the amount of water flowing into the sea even further.

Under the deal, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell water to the San Diego County Water Authority and the Coachella Valley Water District.

The three water agencies are to pay a total of about $375 million for “mitigation” costs at the Salton Sea over the coming decades. The state would be expected to foot the bill for costs above that. But the total price tag remains unknown, and some officials have been warning that the costs of trying to control dust around the lake could be colossal.

The state and federal governments, meanwhile, have been supporting small projects to construct wetlands along portions of the shoreline to protect critical habitat for birds.

IID President James Hanks pointed to the state’s commitments under the water transfer deal and said it’s “very important that we send a message to the rest of California that we’re not going to take our resources and our revenues and replace” those state obligations.

“The state has to step up,” Hanks added, explaining that the state could also help by streamlining the permitting and taking other steps to speed the development of renewable energy projects.

“At the end of the day, we have an environmental nightmare, and the clock is running,” Hanks said.

“Something has to be done. The people of Imperial County have put water into the sea to give the state time to make plans and protect the environment out there and the wildlife, and things are not happening quick enough,” Hanks added.

“So, we’re stepping up to the plate. We’re putting the chips on the table, and we’re advising the rest of California to come and play the game with us, and let’s get that sea taken care of so that the water can continue to flow.”

The report prepared for the agency projected that the bulk of the money, around $2 billion, would come from geothermal plants at the sea pumping out about 2,000 megawatts of power.

Another $1.5 billion would come from lithium and other minerals extracted from geothermal brine.

Solar projects, algae farming and royalties from transmission lines would each provide smaller amounts.

Gary Saleba, the president of Kirkland, Wash.-based EES Consulting, presented the report and said it was prepared using conservative assumptions about the revenues that could be generated.

As for the agency’s next steps, he said, IID will need help from the state and from regulatory agencies to help expedite the permitting of high-voltage transmission lines.

Small geothermal plants near the Salton Sea already tap hot water from deep underground in the seismically active zone, and use the steam to generate more than 300 megawatts of power. But to transport more energy from new plants, new transmission lines would be needed.

IID plans to work with developers to secure new transmission commitments while also working with the state to obtain new power-purchase agreements.

Saleba also suggested pursuing incentives for geothermal energy businesses.

“In order to encourage the geothermal people to get into that area, you need to get some help from the state,” Saleba said. “If they could get a loan guarantee from the state, that would take care of a lot of the financial issues with the geothermal people.”

New geothermal plants could be developed in concert with operations to extract lithium, which is used for the lithium ion batteries that power electric cars.

Simbol Materials, based in Pleasanton, has a small demonstration plant at EnergySource’s Featherstone geothermal plant near the Salton Sea where it is developing technology that extracts lithium and other minerals from the brine that is drawn from the ground.