California Wants Its Imperial Valley to Be ‘Lithium Valley’

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek

California officials, who have spent years studying the idea, don’t merely see Imperial County as a glorified mine. The lithium, they say, could become the foundation of a local market that could make the U.S. a force in a battery industry that China dominates. They want as many future jobs to be clustered in California as possible. They’ve even started using the name “Lithium Valley” to brand the idea. Because the lithium is there, they reason, why not make the batteries there, too, at factories powered by clean geothermal energy? And if the batteries are made there, why not the whole electric car? “The infrastructure is there, the workforce is there,” says Rod Colwell, chief executive officer of Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd., which plans to build a new geothermal plant, complete with lithium extraction, at the lake. “If we manage to snag one battery plant, you’re talking 3,000 jobs. That’s a big deal for Southern California.”

It would be a bigger deal for Imperial County, where even before the coronavirus pandemic the unemployment rate often ran to 15% or 20%. The county, 85% Latino, suffered one of the state’s worst Covid outbreaks this summer. Its two hospitals were so overrun that some patients were airlifted 500 miles away to San Francisco. “This pandemic has only uncovered what many people were not aware of,” says state Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, who grew up in the area and now represents it in Sacramento. “We who live here and have been living with the economic challenges have been ringing the bell for years now.”

Governor Gavin Newsom in September signed a bill written by Garcia creating a committee to explore how best to develop the county’s lithium resources. Garcia calls the opportunity a “Wayne Gretzky moment,” citing the hockey great’s famous method of skating to where he thought the puck was going to be. “You can say this is where the puck is going, in terms of our need for lithium batteries and the electrification of our nation,” Garcia says.