Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries increasingly power electric vehicles and a wide range of consumer electronics, and are a critical component of President Biden’s national strategy to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the US economy. To ramp up the domestic industry, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor and the AFL-CIO, recently announced the launch of a national workforce development strategy for lithium battery manufacturing. While a trained workforce is a necessary component of a lithium manufacturing strategy, the U.S. has historically been dependent upon overseas sources for lithium – but that could change with a new potential lithium source located around California’s Salton Sea.
Most of the world’s lithium supply is either mined from open pit mines, which are common in China and Australia, or extracted from salt lake flats (evaporative ponds) in South America. Both of these methods have serious environmental issues associated with them, or in the case of the evaporative ponds, are slow and economically inefficient. Extensive lithium deposits have been identified in Afghanistan and in parts of Africa, but those resources are limited for either geopolitical or environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) reasons.
The US has its own sources of lithium, but they too come with developmental concerns. New lithium mine proposals in the United States, including a site located on federal land in Nevada and a site outside Death Valley National Park, have triggered opposition from conservationists and Native American tribes.
But could the U.S. find an untapped source somewhere else that has far less environmental concerns? Enter California’s Imperial Valley and its troubled Salton Sea region.
The Salton Sea area in southern California offers a unique combination of naturally occurring lithium in subsurface mineral deposits which are proximate to a geothermally active area, providing a natural source of heat. Preliminary studies indicate this region potentially holds enough lithium to meet all of America’s domestic battery needs and possibly enough to become a net exporter in the future. Private companies tapping into this massive underground reserve originally came to create “carbon free” steam powered electricity. That results from injecting water into the geothermal formations and recovering the super-heated resulting steam to turn turbines.
What they found, however, is that the “brine water” from these operations was highly “contaminated” with mineral salts, including lithium. These salts have to be stripped from the brine water to prevent corrosion to the electrical generating equipment. The good news is that the quantities and concentrations of lithium in these waters may be high enough to warrant commercial extraction and processing for lithium-ion battery production. The Biden administration has taken note of this potential, and recently said that new mining projects in the region will allow the U.S. to reduce its dependence on importing materials from other countries while prioritizing environmental protections and benefits for local communities.
Several companies have already started pilot operations in the region to extract lithium, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy and a company backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Berkshire Hathaway Energy has estimated that the region’s already running ten geothermal plants – which produce carbon-free energy for California and Arizona – could potentially create hundreds of new jobs in Imperial County.
On a parallel track, California is supporting lithium production through its Lithium Valley Commission, charged with investigating issues and opportunities to develop lithium resources in general and around the Salton Sea in particular. The Commission will submit its findings to the State legislature later in 2022, with the thought being there may be additional state funding available for future lithium mining, processing and related industry sector development.
Stakeholders argue lithium mining around the Salton Sea will be much more environmentally responsible compared to historic methods at overseas sources. Miners here would drill a mile or more into the earth, pump out water, and then remove the lithium from the brine. The water would then be injected back into the ground.
What makes the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, so important when discussing lithium mining in the region? This manmade water body was actually formed by accident from an inflow of water from the Colorado River in 1905. This led to a tourism and development boom in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, development in coastal communities and competing demands for water resulted in transfer of water rights to other areas, causing the Salton Sea to shrink, with the remaining waters increasing in salinity. Unfortunately as the lake started to dry up, once thriving resorts and communities were abandoned, fish died, migratory birds detoured, and dust from the exposed lake bed’s mineral-laden soil started contributing to the region’s chronic respiratory health problem. The hope is that tapping the regions lithium, or “white gold” as some put it, will drive economic development, support programs to mitigate health impacts in the region, and perhaps help fund a solution to save the Sea itself.
While the Imperial Valley resource could offer vast new lithium supplies and improve the region’s economic outlook with relatively few environmental drawbacks, it still faces some opposition from some environmental advocates. Various groups worry about the potential impacts of adding waste and air pollutants from an unproven extraction and processing process. Further, Imperial County exempted the current lithium pilot project from environmental review requirements because the existing geothermal plant is already permitted. While Berkshire Hathaway Energy does not anticipate significant environmental issues, new commercial plants will require new environmental impact studies and permits – a potentially lengthy process in California.
Regardless, as the United States seeks to develop its electric vehicle manufacturing capabilities, obtaining a reliable source of lithium is paramount. As part of this process, stakeholders should keep a close eye on California’s support for this industry and the Salton Sea region in particular. This once thriving region’s lithium might just be the missing key needed to find an environmentally friendly source, reduce the U.S.’s dependence on foreign countries, and to revitalize the entire Imperial Valley.