A couple of famous poets once said, “Can’t nobody take my pride. Can’t nobody hold me down.” California, like the rest of the world, may be suffering through a horrible little pandemic, but that’s not going to hold back California’s cleantech leadership. Earlier this month, the California Energy Commission (CEC) awarded $9.5 million for 3 geothermal and lithium projects. The projects have a dual purpose — they help to provide more clean, renewable energy and they help to stimulate a budding lithium recovery industry in the state.
To be even cooler about it, the CEC took one of my favorite words and turned it into an acronym, which is what’s funding this trio of projects. “The grants were funded through the CEC’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program, the state’s premier public interest research initiative which drives clean energy innovation and entrepreneurship.” Okay, I’ll admit it — that acronym was very awkwardly forced.
The biggest award ($6 million) is going to BHER Minerals to build a demo project aimed at producing 100 gallons of geothermal brine per minute, brine which would then be used to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate. This is to be done at a geothermal power plant currently in operation in Calipatria, California.
The second biggest award ($1.8 million) is headed to Materials Research, a company based out of Palo Alto. The company is supposed to implement a pilot/demo project to extract lithium from brine using a new sorbent material. It is also supposed to implement a process for “direct formation of high-purity lithium carbonate.”
The CEC expounds on why lithium-related work is such an important matter for its mission:
“In recent years the global demand for lithium has increased significantly as clean energy resources rapidly replace fossil fuels in the transportation, building, and energy sectors.
“California’s vast lithium deposits – as much as one third of the world’s current lithium demand according to some industry estimates – are also seen as a way to propel the state’s green economy. Deposits in the Imperial Valley alone could potentially produce up to $860 million annually in revenues, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Because of the huge impact lithium recovery could have on the state; the ecosystem of new business, investments, and jobs it could create; and the transformative effect it would have on clean energy, some are dubbing the emerging industry as ‘Silicon Valley 2.0’ or ‘Lithium Valley.’
“For more information about lithium recovery efforts in California and beyond, click here to view presentations and an archived recording of the California’s Lithium Recovery Initiative Symposium held February 12, 2020.”
The third project is not related to lithium, though. It’s a $1.7 million project from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The goal is to “demonstrate how seismic and electromagnetic data can map geothermal reservoirs and create enhanced imaging of their structural features to better locate and place production wells.” This will take place in Sonoma County, Lake County, and Mendocino County at what is the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants — The Geysers.
“California is home to some of the world’s most abundant geothermal resources. The more than 40 geothermal power plants operating in the state tap into naturally-occurring superheated underground reservoirs providing more than 2,700 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. In 2018, geothermal energy produced more than 11,500 gigawatt-hours of generation in the state. However, that represents less than 6 percent of the overall energy produced by the state in 2018, far less than the amount of renewable energy produced by wind and solar.”
Lithium is in high demand today even as electric vehicles account for a minor portion of total vehicle sales. Demand is growing fast and could face some hurdles if lithium supply (which is really nothing to worry about in the long term) can’t keep up with consumer demand for several months or even years. California is wise to ty ensure its own needs are secured as much as possible.
Furthermore, if this incentive can get industry players to bring down lithium costs, that could lead to lower prices for EV batteries, which could mean cheaper electric cars. The state is already one of the top markets in the world for electric vehicle adoption, and is of course home to the massive Tesla Fremont car factory (for now). Providing a large volume of key source material, lithium, California could round out its cleantech leadership story even further.