The California Energy Commission has stepped in as an angel investor, doling out $16 million in grants to a handful of companies to determine if it’s technically and commercially feasible to extract lithium from the brine that geothermal plants are already pulling from deep beneath the Salton Sea area.
One of the operators, CE Generation, a subsidiary of the giant BHE Renewables, is using $6 million in state grants to piggy-back a lithium-extraction pilot project onto its existing geothermal plants near Calipatria, at the southeast end of the dying sea. The company, which expects to break ground soon, will build a small-scale demonstration plant to begin operating next year. Should all go well, it envisions that it could eventually produce nearly a third of the world’s lithium.
From the standpoint of California public policy, the project offers a unique intersection of two state priorities: increasing sources of renewable energy and encouraging new battery technology for electric cars and energy storage. The state’s target for electric cars, for example, could use a boost. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year directed the state to ban all new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.
Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, gave the idea a jump start last year, writing a law that created the Lithium Valley Commission, an optimistic reference to the economic juggernaut that is Silicon Valley. The blue-ribbon commission members, appointed by state agencies, legislators and the governor, hold their first meeting today, and will file a report to lawmakers next year.
State officials envision not just lithium extraction and power plants, but also constructing links along the supply chain, battery-building facilities, electric vehicle manufacturing plants and everything else local authorities can dream of.
Such an expansive project would transform the entire Imperial Valley, home to 174,000 people, 85% Latino, who face chronically high unemployment and few job opportunities outside farm fields.