Gas prices are skyrocketing and international tensions are rising, and as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, many are beginning to understand the increasingly dire need to reduce the world’s reliance on imports like fossil fuels. While solar and wind energy are often environmental activists’ top priorities, geothermal plants have proven themselves the underdog of the clean energy debacle. Unlike solar and wind, geothermal plants can produce a constant stream of energy; now, they may also be able to offer a level of mineral security to the US and its allies that other clean energy plants cannot.
Geothermal plants produce geothermal energy right at the site, but lithium, like fuel, has historically been a major US import. (Much of the nation’s supply comes from China, Russia, Argentina, and Chile, with only one lithium plant currently in operation in the US.) If the US truly wants to back away from its reliance on other countries for energy, it will be required to seek those resources from within, and geothermal plants may be able to help.
We seem to be in luck, though: inland California’s Salton Sea has been found to contain massive amounts of lithium. The Salton Sea’s 11 existing geothermal plants already do the work of extracting brine from deep underground and boiling it to produce steam. The leftover liquid concentrate is simply a byproduct of the geothermal energy production process. As it turns out, remaining brines from the Salton Sea contain high concentrations of dissolved solids that may be able to supply more lithium than the US needs.
Operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are developing pilot plants to test the feasibility of extracting lithium from the brines. Geologist Michael McKibben and energy policy expert Bryant Jones say that if the pilot plants are successful, the Salton Sea’s existing plants will be capable of producing 20,000 tons—or $5 billion worth—of lithium metal per year. This is enough lithium to cover 10 times the current US demand.
Though this is just the beginning of the Salton Sea’s journey toward fulfilling the country’s lithium needs, it dovetails with some promising policy updates. California’s Public Utilities Commission just enacted the Preferred System Plan back in February, prioritizing the development of 25,500 megawatts total in new supply-side renewables (including 1,160 megawatts of new geothermal electricity). If there were ever a time for California policymakers to bite, this might be it.