The lithium revolution has arrived at California’s Salton Sea

I’m lastly contented: California’s Imperial Valley shall be a necessary participant within the honest energy transition.

After a dozen years of engineering, permitting and financing, the Australian firm Controlled Thermal Resources is willing to commence constructing a lithium extraction and geothermal vitality plant on the southern pause of the Salton Sea, greater than 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. A groundbreaking ceremony is planned for Friday near the shore of the horrified desert lake.

John Podesta, who as soon as served as President Clinton’s chief of staff and is now President Biden’s honest energy marketing consultant, shall be on the groundbreaking. As soon as I talked with him forward of the match, he wired the significance of the U.S. lessening its reliance on China and other countries for severe minerals such as lithium — and the utter advantages for Imperial County, an agricultural mecca that sits along the U.S.-Mexico border and has about a of California’s lowest incomes.

“The work goes to be executed by union labor. These are going to be factual jobs,” Podesta said.

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He’s gorgeous — Friday’s groundbreaking is a wide deal. For a bunch of reasons.

Now not like photograph voltaic panels and wind turbines, geothermal vegetation can generate pollution-free electricity 24 hours a day by tapping correct into a sturdy pocket of underground heat thousands of feet beneath the Salton Sea. If we need to transition some distance from planet-warming fossil fuels and vitality our properties and firms with 100% climate-pleasant energy, geothermal can abet.

Lithium, meanwhile, is a key ingredient within the batteries that vitality electrical autos — and also retailer photograph voltaic and wind energy for times when the solar isn’t incandescent and the wind isn’t blowing. And in difference to many other lithium mines, Controlled Thermal’s “Hell’s Kitchen” undertaking — and others planned for the Salton Sea field — would pause small environmental injury.

But till now, I wasn’t obvious whether Hell’s Kitchen would pass forward.

Companies had been trying to resolve the industrial and technical boundaries to Imperial Valley lithium extraction for years. A few of my first stories for the Barren field Solar newspaper, nearly a pair of decade within the past, were about Simbol Provides, a startup that claimed it had cracked the code. In 2015, I wrote about Simbol’s plans for a lithium plant that would possibly maybe maybe make recount of 400 construction staff.

No longer up to a month later, the firm fired most of its staff.

So after I first wrote about Controlled Thermal’s plans eight years within the past, I was skeptical.

Would the firm bring down the excessive up-front prices that had stymied other developers trying to add to the Imperial Valley’s ageing immediate of geothermal vitality vegetation? And would Controlled Thermal’s lithium extraction plans be foiled by the extremely corrosive, superheated underground fluid whereby the critical metallic is dissolved, which would possibly maybe degrade tools?

Jim Turner, Controlled Thermal's president, on the firm's drilling space near the Salton Sea in 2022.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

I kept asking these questions when the firm started transferring dirt around, and when it of path drilled its first wells. I remained skeptical when General Motors invested in Hell’s Kitchen, and when auto wide Stellantis agreed to personal about a of the lithium.

Now, despite the truth that? With a groundbreaking ceremony on the docket for Hell’s Kitchen and surely one of many president’s prime advisors planning to aid, I’m lastly feeling assured that the lithium revolution has arrived on the Salton Sea.

“It’s been a flow, as you realize,” Controlled Thermal Chief Government Rod Colwell educated me.

Colwell and his collaborators quiet dangle wide plans within the works. They envision the undertaking that breaks ground Friday because the first of seven phases, with the likely to in the end plot 175,000 metric heaps per year of lithium hydroxide and 350 megawatts of spherical-the-clock geothermal vitality. Diversified firms would possibly maybe maybe add to the haul, with federal researchers estimating closing year that the superheated brine deep beneath the Salton Sea contains sufficient lithium to gas 382 million electrical-automobile batteries.

But for now, Fragment One in all Hell’s Kitchen is an extended-awaited design shut.

The undertaking will plot about 50 megawatts of geothermal vitality, with the Imperial Irrigation District, the earn site’s publicly owned electrical utility, procuring most of it. The comfort of the vitality will gas on-space operations, serving to Controlled Thermal change into surely one of many first necessary home sources of “white gold.” The power will churn out 25,000 metric hundreds lithium hydroxide every year.

“That is a one-design label. It’s legit,” Colwell said. “That is bulky commercial construction.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks throughout a press convention on the Hell's Kitchen undertaking space near the Salton Sea in 2023.

(Taya Grey / The Barren field Solar by strategy of Associated Press)

Controlled Thermal expects to make recount of 480 of us throughout construction and 220 of us as soon as Fragment One is up and running. The firm has a undertaking labor agreement with organized labor, which implies these jobs shall be crammed by unionized staff.

With these jobs in concepts, Chris Hannan — president of the politically influential Issue Building and Building Trades Council — also plans to aid the Friday groundbreaking. He educated me most of the roles will recede to Imperial County residents, about a of whom will be taught critical abilities thru apprenticeship programs and recede on to full same work by the Salton Sea and in other areas.

“Controlled Thermal Resources is sending a solid ticket about doing it the gorgeous design,” Hannan said.

All that said, there’s no such ingredient as a honest energy undertaking without controversy. And Hell’s Kitchen isn’t any exception.

Sooner than the Imperial County supervisors voted this week to approve the come permits, they heard from a attorney for Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice neighborhood that has raised concerns about likely air and water contamination.

“The Imperial Valley has a proud tradition of rising the food that feeds The US and contributing to the industrial bellow of the Golden Issue,” Luis Olmedo, the neighborhood’s government director, wrote closing month. “But that tradition has already come at a label to the local properly being and natural ambiance. Of us and residents have to quiet continue to pause engaged and work to develop obvious that [Controlled Thermal’s] Hell’s Kitchen initiatives provide the superb requirements for the properly being and safety of our neighborhood.”

Podesta has helped the firm work thru about a of the roadblocks. Biden’s honest energy marketing consultant coordinated with the Military Corps of Engineers to paddle up permitting for a wetland that Controlled Thermal will save near its plant, to abet develop up for the inevitable environmental consequences — such as site site visitors and dirt — which would possibly maybe be inherent to any industrial facility.

“We have to recede looking these initiatives built. But we also have to develop obvious that they’re executed with environmental integrity,” Podesta said.

All that said, the environmental components bobbing up from lithium and geothermal energy manufacturing on the Salton Sea are some distance much less severe than other renewable energy initiatives I’ve coated. Solar farms can sprawl all over thousands of acres of pristine wildlife habitat; wind turbines can kill birds, despite the truth that not nearly about as many as some critics would dangle you ever think.

Fragment One in all Hell’s Kitchen will quilt gorgeous 68 acres. And the surrounding lands are already dotted with geothermal vitality vegetation, sprouting up all over a wide desert expense bordered by nearly about half of 1,000,000 acres of green farm fields to the south and the all of a sudden receding shoreline of the Salton Sea — an environmental and public properly being disaster decades within the making — to the north.

Sunset illuminates the Salton Sea in October 2019.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The honest energy revolution won’t solve the entire Imperial Valley’s concerns, no topic what number of roles or how a lot tax income it generates. The Salton Sea will attend horrified as world warming saps the Colorado River’s flows, main to much less water irrigating Imperial Valley farm fields and running off into the desert lake. Toxic dirt particles will attend getting blown off the ever-drier lakebed and into the air breathed by the field’s low-earnings, largely Latino communities.

But lithium and geothermal will abet, not lower than pretty bit. The more jobs, the more tax income, the upper.

There’s a same dynamic at play with The US’s climate targets.

The Salton Sea geothermal sizzling space alone won’t safe us to 100% honest energy by 2035, the target situation by Biden. Nor will the underground lithium storehouse be sufficient to avert the necessity for other, more environmentally immoral lithium mines.

As soon as I requested Podesta a pair of form of mines — Thacker Cross, which started construction on public lands in Nevada closing year no topic the correct efforts of Native American tribes who said it would infringe on a sacred space — he defended Biden’s monitor report on Indigenous affairs, asserting no president has had “a stronger dedication to both our have confidence and treaty responsibilities.”

Transferring forward on a lot-wanted honest energy initiatives, Podesta added, would require shut consultation with tribes.

“We are able to work these items out if of us safe together, in particular if there’s early consultation and the neighborhood voices are listened to,” he said. “You would possibly maybe fetch paths forward. And I mediate that is correct and can be correct at Thacker Cross.”

A necessary vitality line that started construction closing year in Fresh Mexico affords yet some other instance of the stress.

As I’ve written previously, the 550-mile SunZia electrical line would abet bring wind energy from Fresh Mexico to California. However the undertaking faces opposition in Arizona’s San Pedro River Valley. Loads of tribes and conservation groups sued the federal government closing week to strive to block construction, asserting SunZia would disturb sacred areas and absolute top ecosystems.

Podesta, as it occurs, used to be at SunZia’s groundbreaking too. He said the federal Bureau of Land Administration seemed intently on the likely environmental harms and “made up our minds that the conflicts were not such that they have to quiet pause” construction.

Electrical transmission traces poke thru California's Imperial Valley.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

To Podesta, the vitality line is in the initiating a reminder that we need to approve renewable energy initiatives more immediate — even when these initiatives are controversial. SunZia spent an excellent 17 years going thru federal permitting.

“I labored on that within the Obama administration,” Podesta said.

So here’s hoping construction moves forward straight away at Hell’s Kitchen, and at other firms’ undertaking sites by the Salton Sea. To the extent these comparatively low-controversy initiatives abet us steer certain of thornier conflicts over photograph voltaic farms, wind turbines or former lithium mines, we’ll all be higher off. Same goes for rooftop photograph voltaic panels, by the manner. The quicker, the upper.

But to prevent the wildfires, heat waves, droughts and floods of the climate disaster from getting deadlier and more detrimental than they already are, we need to pause burning coal, oil and natural gas as immediate as likely. And scientists dangle chanced on there’s no solution to full that with out a form of tidy-scale energy initiatives — a form of which would possibly maybe maybe dangle environmental aspect results.

So certain, three cheers for Salton Sea lithium and geothermal. Loyal know that it’s the starting place, not the pause.


As I was writing this column on Wednesday, USC’s Annenberg Faculty for Communication and Journalism dropped Season 1 of Electrical Futures, a novel podcast sequence centered on lesser-identified aspects of the energy transition — and as it occurs, Season 1 specializes in lithium extraction within the Imperial Valley. Diminutive world!

I’m gazing for the podcast, and never gorgeous because they interviewed me. Listen on Amazon, Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


One in all the 115 Los Angeles Times staff contributors who got layoff notices earlier this week used to be Laura Blasey, an editor for the closing four years on our newsletters desk. Laura has been a critical companion in publishing this e-newsletter, brainstorming field traces and headlines, facing technical snafus and serving to craft scheme to attain more readers.

In case you’re an editor trying to grow your e-newsletter operation or in some other case save viewers, Laura would possibly maybe maybe be to take into accounta good hire.

This column is truly the most recent model of Boiling Point, an electronic mail e-newsletter about climate substitute and the ambiance in California and the American West. You would possibly maybe test in for Boiling Point here. And for more climate and ambiance facts, prepare @Sammy_Roth on X.

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