The “brine” beneath this remote Californian lake could provide more lithium than any source on the planet, enough to power all domestic EV car batteries for decades to come. But will the “white gold” rush be all that it promises?
About 40 miles north of the California-Mexico border lies the shrinking, landlocked lake known as the Salton Sea. Though the lake was once the epicenter of a thriving resort community, water contamination and decades of drought have contributed to a collapse of its once-vibrant ecosystem and given rise to ghost towns.
But amid this environmental disaster, the California Energy Commission estimates that there’s enough lithium here to meet all of the United States’ projected future demand and 40% of the world’s demand. That’s big news for the booming electric-vehicle industry, as lithium is the common denominator across all types of EV batteries.
Traditionally, lithium extraction involves either open-pit mining or evaporation ponds, which work by pumping lithium-containing brine to the surface and waiting for the water to dry up. Both of these methods have huge land footprints, are often very water intensive and can create a lot of contamination and waste.
But at the Salton Sea, three companies are developing chemical processes to extract lithium in a much cleaner way, taking advantage of the Salton Sea’s rich geothermal resources. Near the lake, there are already 11 operating geothermal power plants, 10 of which are owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s renewable energy division, BHE Renewables.
“We are already pumping 50,000 gallons of brine per minute across all of our 10 geothermal facilities to the surface,” said Alicia Knapp, president and CEO of BHE Renewables, “and we’re using the steam from that brine to generate clean energy. So we’re really halfway there in that we’ve got the lithium right here in our hands.”
Two other companies, EnergySource and Controlled Thermal Resources, or CTR, are also developing joint geothermal-lithium facilities at the Salton Sea, and General Motors has already committed to source lithium from CTR.
This new industry could be a major economic boon to the region, where the majority Mexican-American community faces high rates of unemployment and poverty and suffers health impacts from the toxic dust that blows off the Salton Sea’s drying lake bed.
“We’re cautiously excited in regards to the Lithium Valley,” said Maria Nava-Froelich, the mayor pro tem of Calipatria, California, the city of about 6,000 where the geothermal power plants are located. “We see it as a game changer here for Imperial County.”
Nava-Froelich hopes the industry will bring much-needed jobs and development to the region, helping to revitalize communities that have seen an exodus of young people seeking opportunities elsewhere. And environmentalists hope that the influx of attention and money will hasten California’s efforts to restore the environment in and around the Salton Sea.
But extracting lithium from geothermal brines has never been done before at scale, so it remains to be seen whether the electric-vehicle industry, the local community and/or the environment will actually benefit.
This isn’t the first time there’s been interest in lithium recovery at the Salton Sea. Hyped start-up Simbol Materials developed a demonstration plant, but the company ceased operations in 2015 after a failed acquisition attempt by Tesla and never developed a commercial-scale facility.
Since then, demand for lithium has shot up and, after falling sharply in 2018, prices are surging once again, incentivizing projects that might not have been economical before. If the current trio of companies can prove their technology works, they stand to make a lot of money from the hundreds of thousands of tons of lithium in the area.
“The Salton Sea field, fully developed, could well serve over 600,000 tons a year, when the world production is less than 400 [thousand] now,” said Rod Colwell, CEO of CTR.
Unlike Berkshire Hathaway and EnergySource, CTR doesn’t have any geothermal power plants in the region, so it’s building a joint geothermal and lithium recovery facility all at once. Currently, the company is constructing a demonstration plant and plans to open its first full-scale facility by the beginning of 2024, providing 20,000 tons of lithium to GM.
Colwell estimates that CTR’s first plant will cost just shy of $1 billion, a steeper price per ton of lithium than many traditional lithium recovery projects. But all three companies expect that price to drop as the technology develops further.
CTR is using ion-exchange technology, which it developed in partnership with Bay Area-based Lilac Solutions, to recover lithium. In this method, geothermal brine flows through tanks filled with ceramic beads, which absorb lithium from the brine. When the beads are saturated, the lithium is flushed out with hydrochloric acid, and lithium chloride remains. This is an intermediary product that CTR plans to refine on-site, yielding lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, a powder that’s ready to be processed and transformed into precursor chemicals and then manufactured into battery cells.
Berkshire Hathaway is also using ion-exchange technology, though the company hasn’t revealed as many specifics as CTR about how it will work.
EnergySource has developed technology known as Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption, or ILiAD, and it’s jumping straight into building a full-scale facility, which it expects to be operational by 2024.
“What we see in terms of production costs is that geothermal brine should be around the first quartile in terms of market competitiveness,” said Derek Benson, CEO of EnergySource.
Notably, all three companies plan to refine the lithium on-site, a process that normally takes place overseas. But the companies aren’t equipped to handle additional steps, such as chemical processing and battery cell manufacturing, which still primarily take place in Asia.
“The rest of the supply chain hopefully in the coming years will also be developed in the U.S.,” said Knapp, “so that we’re able to go straight from lithium and other minerals in the ground to batteries that we’re using to run our infrastructure.”
EV battery maker Italvolt recently announced plans to launch a new company, Statevolt, with the intent to build a $4 billion gigafactory in Imperial Valley that would produce enough lithium-ion batteries for 650,000 electric vehicles per year. Statevolt signed a letter of intent to source lithium and geothermal power from CTR, but did not respond to CNBC’s inquiry about whether it will do chemical processing on-site.
In this special issue, California Agriculture presents review articles that highlight what research to date can say about the changing Salton Sea ecosystem and its environmental and human health–related impacts, and identify areas in which further scientific research is needed to better inform policy.
The Salton Sea, located in Southern California, is a saline terminal lake that has had many identities over the past century or so. Since its reincarnation in 1905 due to lower Colorado River flooding that partially refilled the Salton Sink, it has been California’s largest lake by surface area, covering approximately 350 square miles (Water Education Foundation 2001). In the second half of the 20th century, it was referred to as one of the most productive fisheries in the world, drawing more than 1.5 million annual visitors in the 1960s — more than visited Yosemite National Park at the time — the majority of whom were there for fishing (Cohn 2000; Harris et al. 1969). Throughout the 20th century, with a habitat that supported over 400 species of migratory and resident birds and served as an important stopover along the Pacific Flyway, the Sea warranted recognition as one of the premier bird watching locations in the United States, if not the world (CNRA 2006; Cowan 2014; Schwabe et al. 2008).
Yet with nearly 90% of its inflow comprised of agricultural drainage waters from the approximately 500,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), and exposure to an extremely arid climate that results in excessive evaporation (∼ 1.3 million acre-feet annually), the Sea’s natural attractions have faded as the lake has become more polluted and nearly twice as saline as the ocean (Fogel and Schwabe 2021; Lyons and Hung 2021). Such an outcome was not unexpected given that while the Sea has played many roles in the past, its most well-known if not primary role from a management and water rights perspective has been as a “reservoir for irrigation drainage” (Littleworth and Garner 2017, p. 256).
With the passage of the 2002 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) — a local-state-federal agreement that was developed to wean California from regularly appropriating Colorado River surplus flows above the state’s authorized 4.4 million acre-feet and that sanctioned the transfer of water from IID to entities outside of the region beginning in 2003 — the volume and surface area of the Salton Sea has declined. And while this decline won’t likely threaten the Sea’s ranking as California’s largest lake, it has exacerbated the rate of salinization of the Sea (Ajami 2021) and reduced the prevalence of fish and fish-eating birds (Nye et al. 2021). In addition, it has created a new issue that the Sea may become known for — as a contributor to air pollution (Maheshwari et al. 2021). As the Sea recedes, shoreline that was previously submerged becomes exposed and dries. This “playa” has been identified as a source of airborne particles that may worsen regional air quality and exacerbate respiratory illness and asthma rates that are already far above state averages (Bahreini et al. 2021; Parajuli and Zender 2018). Furthermore, as it continues to decay and decline, the Sea itself may become a more significant source of airborne toxins that negatively impact human health (Biddle et al. 2022 and Freund and Maltz et al. 2022, this issue).
Another role that has the potential to define the Salton Sea for years to come is as an important region for renewable energy development, specifically as a site for geothermal energy production and lithium extraction for use in batteries. Geothermal energy has been produced in the Salton Sea region for over four decades (McKibben et al. 2021), and the rise in worldwide lithium demand for supplying electric vehicle batteries coupled with the complementary nature of lithium extraction from existing geothermal energy production processes may provide a boon to the expansion of both industries around the Salton Sea. Such expansion is not surprising given that the Salton Sea region has the largest undeveloped reserves of geothermal energy and lithium in the world (McKibben et al. 2021), with possible revenues from the lithium deposits in the Imperial Valley part of the region alone of nearly $860 million annually (California Energy Commission 2020). Recent matched investments by CalEnergy (∼$6 million), a local producer of geothermal energy, and the California Energy Commission (∼$6 million) for a lithium extraction pilot project is likely a hint of the possibilities ahead. Of course, what is unknown is how the expansion of these industries can, or will, contribute to the region in terms of development, income and employment — a region characterized by some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the state — and impact environmental quality.
In response to these possibilities, along with prior commitments to mitigate expected environmental problems arising from the QSA, local, state and federal governments are investing significant resources into the Salton Sea. Since 2014, California has set aside nearly $345 million for restoration and environmental mitigation-related activities surrounding the Salton Sea, while the federal government has earmarked another $1.4 million (Fogel and Schwabe 2021; SSA 2022). These funds include such appropriations as nearly $80 million from the 2014 passage of California’s Proposition 1 bond, $200 million from passage of Proposition 68 in 2018, $7.5 million in a 2017 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support regional conservation partnerships, $30 million in support for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for water resources development passed in 2016, and a $14 million award in 2016 by the California Wildlife Conservation Board for sustaining migrating birds and the fish they rely on through wetland habitat restoration.
What the above discussion illustrates is how complex and dynamic the Salton Sea situation is, how management (or mismanagement) of the Sea for one particular role or purpose inevitably has impacts on its other possible roles and opportunities — with real consequences on human and environmental health — and how a significant amount of money has been appropriated for investing in developing plans to address the environmental and human health concerns surrounding the Salton Sea. Because of the delayed response in developing and implementing actual mitigation plans to counter the expected environmental and health-related consequences associated with the QSA until more recently, there has been a common refrain to cease with the studies and move forward with shovel-ready mitigation projects (Byrant 2021).
Unfortunately, and as emphasized in Fogel and Schwabe (2021), the science and data behind many of the state’s plans are either outdated or incomplete. As such, the returns on those significant investments are questionable, as are the outcomes. A more prudent approach than treating investments in research and investments in shovel-ready projects as mutually exclusive is to view the investments in research as a necessary and critical complement to developing efficient, sustainable and informed projects that are based on the best available science and to continue to monitor the effectiveness of such projects so they do provide justifiable and real returns to society in the form of improved human and environmental health.
In an effort to contribute to a better understanding of some of the critical questions surrounding the Salton Sea and the “state of the science,” this issue includes three papers that span issues associated with ecology/hydrology, the microbiome, and air quality and health. In the first paper, titled “Ecological Transitions at the Salton Sea: Past, Present and Future”, (Bradley et al. 2022), the authors provide a brief history of the formation of the Salton Sea, highlighting the fact that it is not a temporary fixture in Southern California but has been an integral part of the region for thousands of years. Yet, while the Sea was a relatively stable ecosystem for most of the 20th century, recent agricultural-to-urban water transfers have caused significant impacts on the ecology of the Sea, including the expected loss of all fish and the fish-eating birds that are reliant on them. And whereas research in the 1990s and early 2000s provided evidence and predictions describing much of what is being observed, the ecology of the system has changed significantly since that time, such that our understanding of the consequences of continued changes in flows into the Sea on the ecology and chemistry of the Sea is very limited. Without further research into the evolving chemistry and ecology of the Sea, and a better understanding of the hydrology of the region, particularly with respect to the surface water-groundwater interactions, the effectiveness of any proposed Salton Sea management plan is speculative at best with potentially significant negative outcomes.
Audubon California has received a grant from the United States Bureau of Reclamation that will fund project design, biological surveys, and community engagement for both dust suppression and the expansion, stabilization, restoration, and enhancement of 250 acres of these emerging wetlands near the town of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea. These incidental wetlands can serve a dual purpose in creating vital habitat for migrating birds and mitigating the dust that endangers the respiratory health of the 650,000 people who live near the Salton Sea.
The existing Bombay Beach Wetland is located on the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea, about 3 miles east of the Bombay Beach community. It consists of a wetland and surrounding vegetation that has developed where several prominent washes converge and groundwater discharges. There are existing saline wetlands and brackish pond habitats for species including the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, American Avocet, Northern Pintail, and possibly the Desert Pupfish.
The existing wetland will remain small, however, without restoration and stabilization. This is because the higher quality habitat area upslope is being increasingly dominated by a monoculture of the invasive Tamarisk plant. The wildlife species, however, are already using the area, despite the lack of formal restoration or management, indicating that there is an opportunity to enhance the area.
The Salton Sea as a whole is important for more than 300 species of resident and migratory birds. Additionally, where there is not wetland or vegetated habitats, there is bare playa that is responsible for dust pollution to the surrounding communities. It is imperative that these emerging wetlands at the Salton Sea be stabilized to ensure sufficient habitat along the Pacific Flyway and to mitigate dust pollution
The Bombay Beach Wetlands project aims to stabilize and enhance various emergent and saline wetlands and playa habitats, protect human health by optimizing water use to promote dust suppression in nearby playas, and provide opportunities for recreational public access.
Wetland preservation and enhancement will be done by protecting existing vegetation, wetland, and aquatic habitat areas from damaging stormwater inflows with the reinforcement of shoreline berms that protect the area.
The reinforcement of berms, complemented by water-use optimization infrastructure, will allow for water to have a maximum environmental beneficial use. This project aims to optimize water use to irrigate vegetation around the adjacent playa for dust control, to maintain the salinity in wetland areas for optimal species productivity, and to enhance and promote new habitat in the wetland.
This project also aims to include outdoor recreation opportunities for the community and is receptive to public feedback on potential project design alternatives and public access ideas. We hope to make this emergent wetland an area that the public can experience, the birds can live in, and an area that can help mitigate public health issues.
The Bombay Beach Wetland Project is in the first phase, which is expected to take two years, which includes habitat and dust control project design, scientific monitoring and data collection, and community engagement in planning design. Following successful completion of this planning phase, groundbreaking on construction would start in 2023.
Water Importation Feasibility Study Screening Report
The Independent Review Panel will present the results of its first review of concepts for water importation that were submitted as part of the State’s 2017 RFI and the Panel’s 2021 RFI. The Screening Report identifies which concepts provided sufficient information to be evaluated and involved importation methods. The Zoom meeting will be hosted by the Independent Review Panel support team on behalf of the Panel. Professor Haddad will also provide an update and overview of the entire Panel process. Spanish interpretation will be provided.
REMINDER: 2022 Salton Sea Management Program Annual Report Community Workshop Set for Tuesday, April 12
Recently, the Salton Sea Management Program team released its 2022 Annual Report and is inviting community members and all interested parties to a virtual community meeting on Tuesday, April 12 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The team will provide an in-depth presentation of the 2022 Annual Report and welcome any questions that arise from this presentation. The workshop will be hosted in English with Spanish interpretation.
The SSMP Annual Report is available for review in both English and Spanish at SaltonSea.ca.gov.
State Water Resources Control Board Annual Workshop on the Status of Phase-1 of the Salton Sea Management Program Set for April 20
The State Water Board will hold a hybrid public workshop, in-person at the Cal EPA building in Sacramento and virtually, to receive oral and written comments on the status of the Salton Sea Management Program, including a report from the California Natural Resources Agency pursuant to Water Board Order WR 2017-0134.
California Senator Feinstein just crafter a letter to the Army Corp of engineers to mitigate the States responsibility for owning 8.5 acres around the Sea. In the letter, please note it claims the sea is shrinking due to conversation “changing agricultural practices” rather than the sale of water to be transferred to San Diego.
“In recent years, water inflows to the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, have sharply declined as the result of changing agricultural practices and water conservation efforts undertaken to stabilize the water supply security of the Colorado River Basin,” the members wrote. “As the Salton Sea shrinks, toxic elements such as arsenic and selenium are exposed on 8.75 square miles of Federally owned lands. When strong desert winds broadly spread this toxic dust, it disproportionately harms the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake.”
Full text of the letter is available here and follows:
March 29, 2022
The Honorable Deb Haaland
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20240
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
The Honorable Michael Connor
Assistant Secretary for Civil Works
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
441 G Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20314
Dear Secretaries Haaland and Vilsack and Assistant Secretary Connor:
We are writing to request that you jointly develop a near-term funding plan to fulfill the U.S. Government’s acknowledged initial landowner responsibility of at least $332.5 million over the next decade to manage the exposed Salton Sea lakebed. We ask that you prepare this near-term funding plan by December 31, 2022 in close coordination with the California Natural Resources Agency and the Salton Sea Authority, which is composed of locally elected leaders, the Torres Martinez Tribe, and major area agricultural districts.
In recent years, water inflows to the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, have sharply declined as the result of changing agricultural practices and water conservation efforts undertaken to stabilize the water supply security of the Colorado River Basin. As the Salton Sea shrinks, toxic elements such as arsenic and selenium are exposed on 8.75 square miles of Federally owned lands. When strong desert winds broadly spread this toxic dust, it disproportionately harms the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake. In particular, Imperial County is 85 percent Mexican-American and has among the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the nation. Approximately 1 in 5 Imperial Valley residents have been diagnosed with asthma, more than double the national average, and pediatric emergency room visits for asthma and respiratory distress in the region (to include Riverside County and Tribal communities) are three times the California average. It is critical for the health and well-being of these communities that we work to mitigate the adverse effects of the receding Salton Sea as quickly as possible.
Congress has urged immediate Federal action to address the government’s landowner responsibility to protect the public health of these disadvantaged communities. The Joint Explanatory Report for the just-enacted Fiscal Year 2022 omnibus appropriations bill directs Reclamation “to provide to the Committees not later than 90 days after enactment of this Act a briefing on Reclamation’s plan for managing the air quality impacts of the estimated 8.75 square miles of lands it owns that will emerge from the receding Sea over the next decade.” In its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, Interior estimated a $332.5 million near-term cost to manage these lands ($38 million per square mile for the 8.75 square miles in federal ownership), plus $4.5 million annual operations and maintenance cost. Interior’s budget request cautioned that these cost estimates are “extremely conservative.”
Congress has provided your agencies with multiple well-funded programmatic authorities from which a near-term federal Salton Sea funding plan may be derived, including through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act and various Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation authorities. While we appreciate and strongly support the Corps’ inclusion of $1.5 million in its IIJA workplan to advance a Salton Sea feasibility study to contribute federal funding support for long-term Salton Sea management, we are keenly interested in what near-term funding the Corps could direct to address the United States’ immediate landownership responsibilities.
We note that the Salton Sea funding plan we request will significantly advance the Biden-Harris Administration Executive Order 14008, which provides that 40% of federal infrastructure, energy and related investments should flow to disadvantaged communities like those surrounding the Salton Sea. The United States also bears Tribal trust responsibilities to the Torres Martinez Tribe.
While we believe Congress has provided you with ample direction, authority and funding to address the United States acknowledged near-term Salton Sea obligations, to reduce the public health burdens of the disadvantaged communities surrounding the lake, and to further protect federal interests in the region over the long term, please notify us if additional congressional direction is needed to support this work. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Geothermal energy has long been the forgotten member of the clean energy family, overshadowed by relatively cheap solar and wind power, despite its proven potential. But that may soon change—for an unexpected reason.
Geothermal technologies are on the verge of unlocking vast quantities of lithium from naturally occurring hot brines beneath places like California’s Salton Sea, a two-hour drive from San Diego.
Lithium is essential for lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and energy storage. Demand for these batteries is quickly rising, but the U.S. is currently heavily reliant on lithium imports from other countries—most of the nation’s lithium supply comes from Argentina, Chile, Russia, and China. The ability to recover critical minerals from geothermal brines in the U.S. could have important implications for energy and mineral security, as well as global supply chains, workforce transitions, and geopolitics.
Geothermal power plants use heat from the earth to generate a constant supply of steam to run turbines that produce electricity. The plants operate by bringing up a complex saline solution located far underground, where it absorbs heat and is enriched with minerals such as lithium, manganese, zinc, potassium, and boron.
Geothermal brines are the concentrated liquid left over after heat and steam are extracted at a geothermal plant. In the Salton Sea plants, these brines contain high concentrations—about 30%—of dissolved solids.
If test projects now underway prove that battery-grade lithium can be extracted from these brines cost effectively, 11 existing geothermal plants along the Salton Sea alone could have the potential to produce enough lithium metal to provide about 10 times the current U.S. demand.
Three operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are in various stages of designing, constructing, and testing pilot plants for direct lithium extraction from the hot brines.
At full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea, which currently generate about 432 megawatts of electricity, could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year. At current prices, the annual market value of this metal would be more than $5 billion.
California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, is a vast pool of pesticides and dead fish – but it was once an incredibly popular vacation destination. This is the story of its accidental creation as the result of a poorly placed canal, its rise, its downfall, and its future. Watch to learn about California’s forgotten inland sea.
It came from this year’s Super Bowl ads, seven of which were for EVs.
U.S. automakers are all retooling their assembly lines to make EVs. That is a big deal because automakers and their suppliers make up the country’s largest manufacturing sector, comprising 3% of U.S. gross domestic product.
But their EV supply chains are all missing one critical link: battery-grade lithium.
Right now, all of the lithium that U.S. automakers use comes from outside the U.S., which could become a problem.
So American EV makers want to get their lithium from mines closer to home. And that could happen soon.
The Salton Sea is one of these resources. Today, there are 11 geothermal power plants along the sea.
Under tremendous pressure, superheated brine flows to the surface. It immediately flashes to steam. This super-heated steam drives a turbine, which in turn drives an electric generator that’s connected to the grid.
Powerful pumps then inject the cooled brine back into the underground field. There, the brine is reheated.
And here’s the good news for EV makers: The brine is rich in minerals that contain lithium.
To top it all off, the electricity generated at the Salton Sea is carbon-free. That makes the lithium-extraction projects there “green.”
Largest Deposit in the World
California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called the Salton Sea the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
And for good reason.
The U.S. Department of Energy believes the Salton Sea brine region could supply 600,000 tons of lithium annually. That’s more than the current U.S. demand. And some geochemists believe the field could hold 1 million to 6 million metric tons of lithium.
That would make it the largest lithium brine deposit in the world – big enough to potentially provide 50 to 100 years’ worth of lithium.
The biggest problem is figuring out how to extract that lithium from the brine. Scientists are also trying to figure out how much of the lithium is in the brine versus the surrounding rocks. That will determine how much lithium can be recovered.
And all of this has caught the attention of some big players.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a division of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A), is working with the private company Controlled Thermal Resources to extract lithium from the cooled brine. Berkshire Hathaway Energy owns 10 of the 11 geothermal plants operating along the Salton Sea.
General Motors Company (NYSE: GM) is also invested in Controlled Thermal Resources. It’s one of the many American automakers that want to get their lithium from the Salton Sea.
Controlled Thermal Resources runs the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project. This is the first Salton Sea geothermal power plant to be combined with a lithium-extraction facility. And its pilot operation should be up and running in 2024.