Tesla Motors isn’t coming to town, but plans to extract enormous amounts of lithium near the Salton Sea are steaming toward reality.
Simbol Materials will soon start construction on a large-scale lithium plant in Calipatria, which the company says will employ 400 people during an 18-month construction period and between 120 and 150 people once finished. Many of those high-wage jobs could go to residents of the Imperial Valley, one of the state’s most impoverished areas.
The Pleasanton-based company has spent a year and a half demonstrating its innovative — and top-secret — process for extracting lithium from geothermal brine, a leftover of geothermal energy production by the southern shore of the Salton Sea. Lithium is a key ingredient in the batteries used by many electric automakers, and the prospect of abundant lithium — which is now largely produced overseas — caught Tesla’s attention last year.
But even though Tesla decided to build its massive battery factory in Nevada rather than the California desert, Simbol could still become a major supplier for Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers. Tracy Sizemore, Simbol’s vice president of business development, has said that he expects full-scale production to begin in 2018 — and that if all goes well, the company could eventually build 10 lithium plants.
“The Imperial Valley geothermal brine is world-class in its resource of lithium,” Sizemore told the Imperial Irrigation District’s energy committee last week. “If we built 10 plants…we would have a sustainable life of over 600 years of production capability.”
For Imperial County — which had a 22.6 percent unemployment rate in November,by far the highest in the state — lithium could have a major economic impact beyond the number of people employed at Simbol’s extraction plant.
Timothy Kelley, president of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, said the lithium plant’s construction would put hundreds more people to work on related projects, including road improvement and the construction of electricity infrastructure. He also predicted that the plant’s operations could create as many as 1,000 permanent jobs, in industries like trucking and equipment delivery.
“There’s going to be a multiplier effect,” he said.
Many of the jobs at Simbol’s lithium plant could to go to local residents. Kelley, a member of the Imperial County Workforce Development Board, said the county is working with unions to train locals for the high-tech jobs that lithium extraction could create.
“Our goal is to train many people locally, and what we can’t, we’ll bring in,” he said. “It’s our responsibility, if we’re trying to attract industry, to have a workforce that’s ready to go.”
Until Simbol starts consistently producing large quantities of battery-grade lithium, no one will know for sure that its extraction process works as advertised. But depending on how profitable the process ends up being, it could also help drive geothermal energy development by the Salton Sea, which has ground to a halt in recent years.
But while lithium extraction could bolster the Imperial Valley’s economy, it would also consume significant amounts of energy and water.
Simbol’s lithium plant will use about 200,000 megawatt-hours of energy per year, based on figures that Sizemore gave to the Imperial Irrigation District’s energy advisory committee last week. That’s enough energy to meet the electricity needs of more than 29,000 average California households.
To provide Simbol with that much energy, the Imperial Irrigation District is working on plans to build a natural gas-fired power plant next door to the lithium plant. The district would sell most of that energy to Simbol, but some of it could be funneled to other large electricity users in the area, including nearby algae farms.
“In times when the load’s not being utilitized there, we can sell it somewhere else,” said Carl Stills, the Imperial Irrigation District’s energy manager. “It’s just how we optimize generation.”
The lithium plant will also use about 2,400 acre-feet of water annually from the All-American Canal, which carries water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley. That’s enough water to meet the needs of roughly 4,000 single-family homes in Southern California.
“You have to put it in perspective of how much water we have, and how much water it’ll use,” Kelley said. “It’s not going to be a competition for other users, such as agriculture.”
The Imperial Valley receives about 3.1 million acre-feet of water from the All-American Canal each year, according to the Imperial Irrigation District. The district designates up to 25,000 acre-feet of that allocation to new, non-agricultural projects annually.
Energy Reporter Sammy Roth can be reached at Sammy.Roth@desertsun.com, (760) 778-4622 and @Sammy_Roth.