Salton Sea is key to CA's EV future, contains 1/3 of global lithium supply

Source: Spectrum News 1

The Salton Sea has the potential to meet 40% of global lithium demand, said Garcia, who authored AB 1657, the bill that established the Lithium Valley Commission within the California Energy Commission to explore strategies to develop the industry. 

Lithium is a key component of the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles — “the oil of the clean energy future,” as California Energy Commission Chairman David Hochschild said during the hearing.

Comprised of Salton Sea representatives, environmental groups, tribal nation spokespeople and state officials, the 14-member Lithium Valley Commission will issue a report on the viability of California lithium next year.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s lithium currently comes from Chile, Argentina, Australia and China, using environmentally destructive practices such as open pit mining and evaporation ponds.

“We’re very mindful going into this that extractive industries have had a very damaging impact on many communities around the world,” Hochschild said. “We can do it much better and differently in part because of the nature of this resource, which will allow for the greenest way to recover lithium that exists in the world.”

Known as Lithium Valley, the lithium in the Salton Sea is produced through a process called direct extraction and is integrated into the geothermal energy generation process, which uses steam from hot water reservoirs below the Earth’s surface to produce electricity. Part of a geothermal brine containing multiple types of minerals, the lithium is recovered using a closed-loop system powered with the renewable energy that geothermal generates.

Lithium extracted from geothermal brine generates 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions compared with lithium produced by Chinese pit mines, according to Controlled Thermal Resources, one of three companies currently developing geothermal lithium extraction technology in the Salton Sea area.

“The vision with Lithium Valley is to complete that full lithium ecosystem — to produce lithium at scale in an environmentally sensitive way, support electric vehicles and also energy storage,” Hochschild said. 

California is the national leader in electric vehicle adoption, as well as production. More than 860,000 EVs have been sold in the state since they first came on the market a decade ago. They currently account for about half of all EV purchases in the U.S. — a number that is expected to grow exponentially following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order last September mandating that 100% of new passenger vehicle sales in the state be zero emissions.

Thirty-four EV manufacturers also call the state home, including the Tesla factory in Fremont and the bus makers BYD and Proterra in SoCal. Last year, electric vehicles became the state’s No. 1 export.

In addition to powering vehicles, lithium batteries are also used to store the energy produced from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Hochschild said California will be increasing energy storage tenfold this year as it seeks to convert the state to 100% renewable energy by 2045.

In addition to its potential as a major source of lithium, the Salton Sea plays a key role in the state’s renewable energy goals. It is the site of 11 geothermal energy plants.