COACHELLA – Energy manager at the Imperial Irrigation District, Carl Stills, spoke at the Coachella Valley Economic Forecast Conference in Indian Wells on Thursday, and opened the possiblility that the Salton Sea may get more than just lithium, and a lithium factory, but Tesla Motors is considering a move to the Imperial Valley.
Drawn by a close lithium source, Tesla Motors, a Northern California company is giving Imperial County a serious look.
It seems an ideal match — a game-changing lithium-extraction plant at the Salton Sea and Tesla Motors’ Gigafactory, the 10-million-square-foot facility the electric vehicle maker plans to have online by 2017 to turn out the lithium-ion batteries it needs to reach its goal of putting 500,000 electric cars on the road per year by 2020.
“Lithium’s going to be huge,” Stills said. “It’s so much lithium that can come out of this geothermal mining. We just got notified yesterday that Tesla is now back considering Imperial Valley because of the location close to the potential lithium. So they may not leave. They may leave, but it’s now up in the air again. So, they may stay here and they may move down next to the brine.”
Stills was referring to the lithium-extraction technology and pilot plant that Simbol Materials of Pleasanton has developed at the Salton Sea, recycling geothermal brine from EnergySource’s John Featherstone plant in Calpatria. IID sees lithium and other mineral extraction from geothermal brine as a potential source of the millions of dollars needed for the restoration of the Salton Sea.
In a recent report, the district estimated that revenues from mineral extraction could provide $1.5 billion over the next three decades, with at least part of that total going to efforts to stave off the shrinking of the sea.
California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea is both shrinking and becoming saltier due to a decline in agricultural runoff, a situation that could trigger increasing amounts of dust blowing off the lake bed and loss of critical habitat for fish and birds.
Water levels are expected to fall lower and faster at the end of 2017, when a water transfer deal, the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement, goes into effect, cutting the amount of water flowing into the sea even further.
While others have tried, Simbol is the first to have overcome the challenges of separating lithium from the brine, which is also laced with a number of other metals and chemicals. After producing 100 tons of high-quality lithium at its pilot plant, the company is moving forward with plans to build a commercial-scale facility that could process 6,000 gallons of brine per minute and ultimately extract 15,000 tons of lithium a year.
That could be a big draw for Tesla because most of the lithium used in lithium-ion batteries now running electric vehicles, microgrids and all manner of digital devices comes from outside the United States.
The country now imports most of the lithium it uses from Chile and Argentina, which along with China and Australia are among the world’s leading producers of the metal, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A locally produced, competitively priced source of lithium could help Tesla cut the costs of its sleek but expensive vehicles as it works toward launching a more affordable, compact model to be priced round $35,000.
The company is also looking for major amounts of land, not only for the factory but for renewable energy installations it will build to power it — another plus for Imperial County, which has a growing complement of solar projects.
Speculation and competition over the Gigafactory have been fierce since February, when the company first announced its plans for the mammoth plant — and the more than 6,000 jobs it would create. Company CEO Elon Musk has said he intends to keep the plant in the United States but neither California nor Imperial County were on the short list of possible sites.
Details posted on the Tesla website identified Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as finalists in a site selection process that the company said was underway.
Stills and IID were mum Friday on details of who notified them about a possible change of location for the Gigafactory.
Tracy Sizemore, director of health, safety and environment for Simbol, was equally tight-lipped.
Timothy Kelley, president and CEO of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, would neither confirm nor deny possible talks with Tesla, but he did say that the county has been actively pursuing battery manufacturers in general.
“I’ve been working with battery manufacturers for four and five years, and the game changer is Simbol,” he said. “Part of my experience has been in China, meeting with these manufacturers and talking about the opportunities, talking about land, water, labor. Now not only do we have those assets, we’re producing lithium, manganese and an abundance of renewable energy.”
The caveat here is that corporations usually work with site selectors, who may not even reveal the company they represent until very late in the process, he said.
“In most cases we don’t talk directly to companies; we talk though an intermediary,” he said. “You kind of try to make guesses. It helps you put your application together, when you’re looking at where a company is located or you’re looking at what your competition and what your strengths are going to be. Everyone believes their location is the best.”
Kelley envisions a cluster of battery companies eventually growing up in Imperial County, which in turn could boost lithium extraction, employment and funds for the Salton Sea restoration.
“We’re trying to make a case why this region could be ground central for this industry,” he said. “The supply chain in batteries is about 200 companies. If we could get 10 of those, it would be fantastic.”