The story of Lithium Valley begins in earnest on Sept. 29, 2020.

That’s the day when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 1657, sponsored by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, creating a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Lithium Extraction in California.” That commission is now called the Lithium Valley Commission.

What is this all about? Oh, just the fact that up to 40% of the world’s potential future lithium supply is located under and near the Salton Sea.

In the months since the establishment of the Lithium Valley Commission, the area has become the focus of intense and optimistic attention by the media, government officials and leaders in industries ranging from clean energy to electric transportation.

What does this all mean? Let’s start with the basics. Lithium is a soft, alkali metal—its atomic number is 3, making it the lightest of all metals. It doesn’t occur freely in nature; it’s only found in compounds. It’s highly flammable—and is primarily used today in ubiquitous lithium ion batteries. It’s often found in areas where there is also a lot of geothermal energy.

This brings us to the area now known as Lithium Valley.

“The term Lithium Valley refers to the entire region of the Salton Sea, and more specifically, the southern end of the Salton Sea,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia during a recent interview with the Independent. “Similarly, a couple of decades ago, the term ‘Silicon Valley’ was coined, and we know what that did for California’s economy and technology across the world. So we’re talking about Lithium Valley in that same context.”

Yes, Garcia just compared the potential of Lithium Valley to Silicon Valley. The huge deposit of lithium located under the Salton Sea area—a deposit that may be recoverable in a cost-effective fashion, at a large scale and with limited negative environmental impacts—is a potential game-changer for the Coachella Valley, the state and even the United States.

Let’s explain.

David Snydacker is the founder and CEO of Lilac Solutions. According to the company website, Lilac is “a mining technology company … building partnerships with (lithium) brine developers and operators around the world.”

“Lithium is the lightest metal on the periodic table and can charge quickly into a variety of electrode materials, making it uniquely valuable for batteries,” Snydacker said in an interview last autumn with Northwestern Magazine, published by his alma mater. “If we made a top five list of the world’s best batteries, lithium is the key element in every one. That’s why lithium dominates every kind of high-performance battery, from electric vehicles to portable electronics. Demand for lithium continues to increase as electric vehicles offer stunning performance and become cost-competitive.”

Thermal mud pots bubble at the Controlled Thermal Resources project site at the Salton Sea. Credit: Courtesy of Controlled Thermal Resources

As mentioned above, Lithium Valley has the potential to meet 40% of world’s lithium demand moving forward, according to the California Energy Commission, although no authoritative source has calculated exactly how much lithium is in the deposit.

“I’ve been told by some that we’ve got the largest deposit of lithium in the world, or on the continent,” Garcia said. “I’m going to give you the 6-year-old’s answer: It’s a lot.”

The Lithium Valley region is a hotbed of geothermal energy production, with roughly a dozen plants in operation there.

“Most of the world’s lithium is found in the brine deposits underneath salt flats,” Lilac Solutions’ Snydacker told Northwestern Magazine. “This salty water contains 0.1% lithium at best, and the remaining 99.9% is low-value salts and water. Currently, to extract that lithium, you need to evaporate everything around it using ponds. Not only do these types of projects leave a massive footprint and affect nearby water resources; they can take 10 years to develop and, at best, capture only 50% of the lithium available. The whole process is antiquated, inefficient and unsustainable.

“Lilac’s solution eliminates the need for new evaporation ponds. Instead, Lilac offers a new ion-exchange system capable of extracting 80% of available lithium in a matter of hours, versus years, with a footprint 1,000 times smaller than ponds.”

There is no shortage of potential stakeholders who think Lithium Valley may one day soon become a promised land which will spawn considerable economic wealth; massive synergistic business opportunities in the clean-energy and electric-transportation spheres; and the environmental salvation of the Salton Sea. That vision is already being financed by some of our country’s wealthiest investors, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, among others. They see a future of geothermal energy production, lithium recovery and electric transportation companies coming to the area.

David Hochschild is the chair of the California Energy Commission. At an informational hearing held on May 26 by the California State Assembly’s Select Committee on California’s Lithium Economy, he spoke enthusiastically and at length about the promise offered by the state’s commitment to lithium production—particularly in the Lithium Valley. Referring to the high-value element as “the oil of the clean-energy future,” Hochschild rattled off a number of facts that, when digested together, point to the economic boom that could result from Lithium Valley:

• In California, an average of 650 electric vehicles are currently sold per day, with more than 860,000 total EVs sold to date.

• In 2020, electric vehicles became the leading export from California and its 34 electric-vehicle production companies.

• On May 25, Ford motor company announced it will spend $22 billion through 2025 on electrifying many of its vehicles in the Americas, Europe and China.

• Geothermal energy has the potential to become a major supplier to California’s clean-energy power grid, which last year received 63% of its output from carbon-free energy sources.

However, there are questions regarding Lithium Valley that need answers.

Amidst this enthusiasm coming from so many quarters, some voices are raising concerns about how all of this will affect the historically disadvantaged communities and residents of the eastern Coachella Valley and Imperial County.

One such voice belongs to Luis Olmedo, the executive director of the Comite Civico del Valle, an organization which, since 1987, “has been serving the communities of Imperial Valley, (and) now serves various California communities through collaborative efforts with other established environmental justice organizations and in partnership with researchers, academia and government agencies,” according to the organization’s website.

The ideas for Lithium Valley come with a lot of questions. For example, how will the brine be safely disposed of once the lithium is removed? Will more geothermal plants result in unclean air emissions? Just how environmentally friendly will the lithium-recovery process and its geothermal-energy production antecedent truly be?

Efforts by the Independent to reach Olmedo before this story’s deadline were unsuccessful. However, he recently told The New York Times: “Our region is very rich in natural resources and mineral resources. However, they’re very poorly distributed. The population has not been afforded a seat at the table.”

The ideas for Lithium Valley come with a lot of questions. For example, how will the brine be safely disposed of once the lithium is removed? Will more geothermal plants result in unclean air emissions? Just how environmentally friendly will the lithium-recovery process and its geothermal-energy production antecedent truly be?

“It’s a good question,” Garcia said. “(Environmental concerns are) perceived as a negative aspect, because people don’t know—including us. But I think this first attempt at understanding the technology, and the comparisons of how (lithium recovery) is being done in other places, and how it’s being proposed to be done here, can put some people’s minds at ease. If we’re talking about a really distressed environmental situation being (compounded) by additional pressures due to this initiative, then people would say, ‘Hell no; we’re not going to do that.’ We’ve got to spend a lot of time on this—and partly, that’s the role of the Lithium Valley Commission members, who have to roll up their sleeves and dig into this issue.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz tours the Salton Sea with Rep. Marcy Kaptur and representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of California, the Salton Sea Authority and the Audubon Naturalist Society in March 2020. Credit: Courtesy of the Office of Rep. Raul Ruiz/Facebook

Dr. Raul Ruiz, who represents California’s 36th congressional district, conceded that stakeholders have a lot to learn.

“There’s more that we need to study and learn about the actual brine itself and the (recovery) processes themselves,” Ruiz said during a recent interview with the Independent. “We need to know more about that and the effects on the environment. At the same time, this form of lithium extraction is the cleanest (when compared to) other forms that require demolishing land. But the most important points here are that the community that will be affected has to be at the table—they must be consulted in a meaningful way—and that there must be complete transparency, so that together with all the other stakeholders, we maintain the integrity and the health of the community.

“As a doctor, from my perspective, the biggest benefit is the advancement of our economy alongside the protection of our health from the (effects of) the receding Salton Sea. It’s going to be important to link the benefits of the lithium extraction to the protection of our public health.”

Ruiz mentioned three things that need to happen next.

“One is to ensure that we link the lithium and geothermal potential to the public health in the area,” Ruiz said. “In other words, they need to go hand in hand. We cannot allow private industry to come in and extract the lithium, make profits and then leave behind the public-health dilemma (that results from) exposed playa. The challenge is to create incentives to tie the economic opportunity to the 10-year (Salton Sea Management) Plan, and prevent exposed playa from harming our health and our economy.

“The second key,” Ruiz continued, “is to ensure that the local community is involved in making decisions about community benefits around the Salton Sea, and that the jobs created are made available to local residents. That’s going to be very important. Local residents should have input into the design and implementation of these economic projects as it relates to their lives and livelihoods in their community.

“The third is that the vision must be comprehensive. We don’t just want lithium to be extracted and then moved away from our district or area. We want the full supply chain. We want to match our lithium extraction with battery production through manufacturing in our local communities, which would also boost our economy and provide more jobs for our residents.”

Garcia also said Lithium Valley must play a role in addressing the pollution threats posed by the Salton Sea.

“Everything that happens here has to have multiple co-benefits for the Salton Sea challenges that are before us,” Garcia said. “One of the conversations that is happening on the ground is about what the community benefit will be from all of this activity. Aside from counting the number of jobs, and (calculating) property value and property taxes paid to the county, what are the additional benefits, and is there a way to capture them? I keep referring to the community as being a stakeholder and a shareholder when it comes to the success of these efforts getting off the ground.

“So, what needs to happen? I think the local community needs to establish what could potentially be a ‘community benefit fund’ that will create resources to reinvest back into solving Salton Sea mitigation and restoration problems.”

Both locals and the state of California have vested interests in the success of Lithium Valley—and so does the entire United States. As a result, several federal initiatives are already focused on Lithium Valley.

“President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the infrastructure package that we are developing currently call for building America back better and responsibly, with an emphasis on renewable energy, so that we don’t cause more pollution,” Ruiz said. “We want to address the pollution (that exists) by building as much as we can with low-polluting renewable energy.

“We import the vast majority of the lithium that we use, and then we have to export the lithium to China for them to include in their batteries for us to purchase. But there have been studies done that show there’s enough lithium under the Salton Sea to make the United States the second-biggest lithium-exporting country in the world. In fact, the Salton Sea is one of the five largest lithium deposits on the globe—so that’s an enormous amount of potential. Since the infrastructure of the future requires electric vehicles, micro-grids and the conversion of manufacturing industries into more environmentally friendly (operations), it will also require energy storage capacity with batteries—and we could be producing the batteries here in America. … I am bringing the lithium deposit potential to the attention of President Biden and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in order to start the process within the federal government of building collaborations among the departments, and furthering the opportunities for collaboration with the state.

“Already, the federal government, under the Department of Energy, has initiated two projects. One comes from their Geothermal Technologies Office, which launched a $4 million American-made geothermal lithium extraction prize, which is focused on turning geothermal brine from the Salton Sea into useable lithium. It’s a contest with local universities partnering with a company that can license the intellectual property from the (prize-winning technology) as well.

“The second thing the DOE has done is partner with the state to provide $21 million to Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which has a pilot project at the Salton Sea to extract the lithium from the brine and convert it to useable battery-grade lithium. And on Feb. 24, President Biden issued an order directing the Department of Energy to analyze the American supply chain for high-capacity batteries, and develop recommendations to secure it.”

(Amy Kort, a corporate communications representative with Berkshire Hathaway Energy, reached out with this response after this story’s initial publication: “The Department of Energy did not ‘partner’ with the state. Rather, BHE Renewables won two separate, independent matching-fund solicitations—one from the California Energy Commission for a demonstration project to recover lithium from geothermal brine, and the other from the U.S. Department of Energy for a demonstration project to convert lithium chloride into battery-grade lithium hydroxide and to fund engineering for full-scale commercial operations.”)

California District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia speaks at press conference held on the shores of the Salton Sea. Credit Courtesy of the Office of Eduardo Garcia

Garcia said the Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables demonstration plant needs to prove it’s possible to scale up the lithium operation into commercial levels. “When that happens, I think it will become evident that what we’ve been talking about for this period of time is going to attract the car manufacturers, and other lithium industry end-users, or beneficiaries who will get an opportunity to see the tremendous benefits from the lithium here,” Garcia said.

Garcia said the Coachella Valley and Imperial County need to be ready to take advantage of Lithium Valley’s stunning potential.

“We’re looking at what programs and policies need to align (to promote) workforce training for the region to be prepared to take on these jobs,” he said. “You know, we’re not just talking about benefits for the Imperial County and eastern Riverside County. We’re talking about a statewide benefit if this all occurs. And we’re not stopping at (a statewide level), given that the federal government’s goals and objectives clearly are starting to align with what we’re talking about here. … There’s a whole national-defense component to this, which is why I think that the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have stepped up and are engaging in this conversation.”

Garcia concluded by again comparing the potential of Lithium Valley to Silicon Valley.

“I’m telling you that now we’ve got folks calling us to talk about (the fact that) this is what they felt and what they envisioned in Silicon Valley’s early days,” Garcia said. “Of course, we don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver, but I think it’s possible to get this industry in California off the ground and really help the local regional economy be transformed, while helping us to meet our ambitious environment and energy goals.”

(Edited on June 16 to reflect requested changes from Berkshire Hathaway Energy)

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...