Salton Sea

Lithium Valley begins to take shape and direction. 

As talk of the lithium potential from the Salton Sea's geothermal brine continues, progress has been concretely measurable in the last months. Behind the scenes negotiations with IID and renewable energy companies for land under IID’s control have intensified, according to Imperial Irrigation District Director Jim Hanks. He told the Lithium Valley Commission at the last meeting, June 24, that although the closed session negotiations had non-disclosure clauses, he could report plans were moving quite rapidly, including issues with permitting.

“Interested parties are making contact weekly, many looking for incentives. The District is developing Power Purchase Agreements (PPA),” Hanks told the Commission.

A PPA allows the District to purchase energy from a source to transmit either as retail to its electrical customers or sell wholesale along its transmission lines.

The Lithium Valley Commission is another tangible proof of progress in mining the sought-after mineral. Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia set up what the Blue Ribbon Commission consisting of Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley, IID Director Jim Hanks, Rod Collwell of Controlled Thermal Resources, and Jonathan Weisgall of Berkshire Hathaway Energy who owns 10 of the 11 geothermal wells east of the Salton Sea. Also on the committee of 14 members, all appointed by state agencies, is Luis Olmeda of Comite Civico de Valle, INC, a social environmental group. The Commission is made up of Imperial County elected officials, social justice representatives, industrial leaders, and state employees in related fields. Controlled Thermal Resources plans to construct the largest geothermal plant in the world at the Salton Sea, called Hell's Kitchen, with geothermal energy as the byproduct of extracting lithium from the heated underground brine.

As for legislative incentives, regulations, and laws, Garcia also asked California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to create a Select Committee on California’s Lithium Economy, which he did, and assigned Garcia as chair.

Garcia held the first informational hearing May 26, 2021, on lithium opportunities at the Salton Sea. 

“According to the California Energy Commission, the Salton Sea geothermal resource area which is now coined as “Lithium Valley” has the potential to meet 40 percent of the global lithium demand,” said Garcia at the hearing.

Experts predict the industry could bring $900 million in annual revenue and $20 million in taxes to the County. 

BHE Renewables — a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa — announced in January its $14,894,540 grant from the US Department of Energy to construct a demonstration plant converting lithium chloride into battery-grade lithium hydroxide at its Calipatria facility. Last week’s grant announcement complements statewide and regional efforts to advance lithium recovery opportunities around the Salton Sea.

“After persistent and collaborative advocacy, it is exciting to see momentum build for lithium projects in Imperial Valley,” Garcia said in a press release at the time. “I congratulate BHE Renewables on this nearly $15 million investment and commend their efforts to galvanize a competitive lithium industry in California. While the Salton Sea Geothermal Resource Area is home to the largest deposits of lithium reserves in North America, virtually none is produced in the United States. As global demand for lithium continues to grow and California works to achieve our zero-emission vehicle goals, we are presented with the perfect opportunity for our region to be part of this push and lead economic recovery.”

Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings consists of 10 geothermal power plants in the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area. According to its webpage, the combined capacity at Imperial Valley for the company is approximately 345 net megawatts.

Weisgall of Berkshire Hathaway said of the demonstration project, "The rebar is in, we are ready to start construction. A regional road is going in, the contractor is ready to go, the land is cleared. We are underway and on target."

The California Public Utilities Commission adopted a historic procurement order on June 24, requiring utilities to bring 11,500 MW of power online between 2023 and 2026 from renewables. 

This represented the largest capacity procurement ordered at a single time by the CPUC and is the largest requiring only clean resources. Within the order was a requirement for 1,000 MW to come from new geothermal capacity.

A few minutes after the announcement, Ryan Kelley, the vice-chair on the Lithium Valley Commission texted, “This is a tremendous win for Imperial, but also for this Commission. We now have a path for putting new geothermal online, and the accompanying brine that will allow us to recover lithium. Now the hard work: permitting and financial incentives to make the Lithium Valley a reality!”

The latest news on lithium development at the Sea was the announcement of General Motors  on July 2, about investing in Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR). General Motors has agreed to form a strategic investment and commercial collaboration with CTR to secure local and low-cost lithium. This lithium will be produced through a closed-loop, direct extraction process that results in a smaller physical footprint, no production tailing and lower carbon dioxide emissions when compared to traditional processes like pit mining or evaporation ponds.

GM said lithium is a metal crucial to its plans to make more affordable, higher mileage electric vehicles.

The relationship between GM and CTR is expected to accelerate the adoption of lithium extraction methods that cause less impact to the environment. A significant amount of GM's future battery-grade lithium hydroxide and carbonate could come from CTR's Hell's Kitchen. With the help of GM's investment, CTR's closed-loop, direct extraction process will recover lithium from geothermal brine in an environmentally superior fashion than elsewhere in the world.

GM is the first company to make a multi-million dollar investment in CTR's Hell's Kitchen project. As the first investor, GM will have first rights on lithium produced by the first stage of the Hell's Kitchen project, including an option for a multi-year relationship.

"Lithium is critical to battery production today and will only become more important as consumer adoption of EVs increases, and we accelerate towards our all-electric future," said Doug Parks, GM executive vice president in the press release announcing the partnership. 

Most lithium used in lithium-ion batteries is currently mined and processed outside of the U.S., mostly in China.

The first stage of the Hell's Kitchen project is expected to begin yielding lithium in 2024.

IID President Jim Hanks said at the District's July 6 meeting, "The GM contract with Controlled Thermal Resources is the first of many contracts."

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