KALIPATRIA, California –
Near the dying Salton Sea in Southern California, a canopy next to a geothermal power plant covers large vats of salty water that are left behind after super-hot liquid is drilled from deep below to power steam turbines. The vats are connected to tubes that spit out what looks like flush water, but it’s lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, and the latest hope for economic revival in the depressed region.
Demand for electric vehicles has skyrocketed investments to extract lithium from brine, salty water that has been overlooked and pumped underground since the region’s first geothermal plant opened in 1982. The mineral-rich by-product could now be valued more than the steam used to generate electricity.
California’s largest but rapidly shrinking lake is at the forefront of efforts to make the United States a major global player in the production of the ultralight metal. Despite having large deposits in the United States, Nevada has the country’s only lithium plant, and American production lags far behind Australia, Chile, Argentina and China.
Decades of ecological ruin and failed economic promises have left some residents of the receding shores of the Salton Sea indifferent or suspicious.
The Salton Sea formed in 1905 after the Colorado River broke a levee and two years of flooding filled a seething basin. In the 1950s, the lake flourished as a tourist destination, attracting anglers, boaters, and celebrity visitors like Frank Sinatra.
But storms in the 1970s destroyed marinas and resorts. Floods destroyed many homes in the tiny, former resort of Bombay Beach, and after the water dried, left an almost apocalyptic atmosphere that has recently attracted artists.
The lake level peaked in 1995, but has since then evaporated faster than the water of the Colorado River, which seeps through farms downhill, has been able to refill as farmers save more water.
Since 2003, the 839 square kilometer lake has shrunk by 104 square kilometers, exposing a huge lake floor with microscopic, wind-blown dust that contributes to poor air quality and asthma.
The sea is an important stopover for migratory birds, but species are declining as the fish they eat becomes scarce. Carcasses of deoxygenated tilapia no longer regularly cover the banks with a stench that could reach Los Angeles because there are so few left.
In Salton City, a town of about 6,000 people, streets run along empty lots, a legacy of the first contractor to stop construction in 1960. Street signs with idyllic names like Harbor Drive and Sea Shore Avenue mark a barren landscape with cracked sidewalks.
Pat Milsop, a 61-year-old retired restaurant owner, hits golf balls over a dry canal. His eyes are full of ramshackle docks on bone-dry ground that housed boats when his mother-in-law bought his house in 2004. He is skeptical that lithium will restore some of the lake’s shine.
“Are they going to do something good for the community or will they just buy up the whole country and kick everyone out?” He asks. Nostalgic for the livelier days, he plans to move to his farm near Lubbock, Texas.
The lake is located on the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault, which has shifting tectonic plates that bring molten material closer to the surface of the earth.
Controlled Thermal Resources Ltd. is building the region’s first new geothermal facility in more than a decade and expects the $ 520 million facility to begin producing lithium in 2024. In July, General Motors Corp. known to have invested in the project to eliminate tailpipe emissions from light commercial vehicles by 2035.
Owners of 11 existing geothermal plants on the lake’s south shore are upgrading for lithium and possibly other brine minerals rather than building from scratch. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co. has state and federal grants for lithium demonstration projects and says construction could begin for commercial operation in 2024.
EnergySource LLC opened its geothermal facility in 2012, and its sister company EnergySource Minerals has been mining small-scale lithium there since 2016, said Derek Benson, chief operating officer. Construction of an additional $ 500 million mineral extraction annex is slated to begin by the end of March.
Before it is pumped back underground, the brine is “borrowed” for a few hours to extract lithium from under a nearby canopy, Benson said.
The extraction of lithium from geothermal brine has never been carried out on a commercial scale. Proponents say it causes less environmental damage than the two predominant methods of production: mining rocks and using cooler brine, which is baked in the sun in large ponds for about two years until the water evaporates. The Nevada facility uses evaporation basins.
The Salton Sea is in Imperial County, which, despite the hugely productive land used by US supermarkets stocking winter vegetables, has a poverty rate of 22%, one of the highest in California. El Centro, the county seat, persistently has one of the highest unemployment rates of 389 metropolitan areas in the United States.
Ruben Hernandez, 54, has been working for a landowner in the Imperial Valley since he was eight. He and his wife own a Mexican restaurant in the largely deserted city of Niland near the lake. His wife wants to stay, but “there is nothing here, no city,” he said.
Lithium project supporters who come for breakfast tell him it could potentially feed 20 to 30 people and deliver lunch to their factory.
“If they set this city up, it would be great,” he said.