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California’s energy future hinges on lithium, from solar panels to batteries. Here’s what we know.

A solar energy panel is lifted into place in a solar energy field at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
A solar energy panel is lifted into place in a solar energy field at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

In the form of a lithium-ion battery, this mineral powers everything from solar panels to electric cars. So far, lithium used in the United States is imported from other countries that commercially extract it. But with interest in the mineral growing rapidly, that will soon change.

California officials have their sights set on a renewable future.

Already, the state has committed to having 60% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045. These steps are part of larger plans to combat the worsening impacts of climate change, which are driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

But these goals hinge on a mineral that’s a key power source for renewables:

Lithium.

In the form of a lithium-ion battery, this mineral powers everything from solar panels to electric cars. So far, lithium used in the United States is imported from other countries that commercially extract it. But with interest in the mineral growing rapidly, that will soon change.

In February, President Joe Biden spoke with Gov. Gavin Newsom and other California officials about the future of lithium. In the United States, these efforts to harvest lithium will largely be based around the Salton Sea, a mineral-rich body of water in Southern California that contains one of the most abundant sources of lithium in the country.

Lithium will be key to California’s transition to renewable energy – but with so much of its future in the works, it’s important to understand what we know about the mineral now.

What is lithium and how do we extract it?

Lithium is a mineral. It can be extracted through open-pit mining, like many other minerals, but newer methods of harvesting it do so by taking superheated, mineral-rich brine found underground and pumping it up to the Earth’s surface. Lithium is extracted from that brine and then the brine is reinjected back into the earth.

Right now, the majority of commercially harvested lithium comes from Australia and some countries in South America, namely Chile. In these countries, lithium has traditionally been harvested via mining. This method of extraction has come at an environmental cost since it can cause contamination of air, water and soil.

Interested companies in the United States have explored the second method of extraction, which is a newer method that is known to be generally more environmentally friendly.

What makes these newer methods more environmentally friendly?

There are at least 10 geothermal plants and lithium extraction projects operating in the Salton Sea area. Some companies, like EnergySource Minerals, have conducted environmental impact assessments of their own projects that indicate that this newer form of extraction is more environmentally friendly than others.

But even with promising methods on the horizon, some questions remain. What are the environmental impacts of long-term extraction in the Salton Sea, and how long is the resource going to last?

Patrick Dobson, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has just launched a research project aimed at answering these questions. Already, he’s participated in previous rounds of research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at understanding the potential of lithium in the Salton Sea.

“There's a wide scale of additional benefits,” Dobson said of these newer methods of extraction. “But we also want to make sure that there aren't negative aspects that would impact the health and local environment, as well.”

Dobson says that this method of extraction seems much more obviously environmentally friendly than open-pit mining, which he says has “significant environmental impacts in terms of land usage, water usage, CO2 emissions.” But the exact impacts of this method, especially long term, still need more research.

“At first glance, it looks like this is a much better way of doing it,” he said. “But we just want to identify, you know, are there issues and are there mitigation steps that can be taken to make those impacts even less?”

Where will this happen in California?

Companies that are currently piloting methods of extracting lithium are based around the Salton Sea, a body of water that is mainly part of Imperial County in Southern California.

While lithium has not been extracted commercially from this area before, there’s already a long history of extracting other minerals in the area, like zinc.

“So with lithium, with the increasing demand that goes on and increasing prices, the companies are banking on the fact that there's going to be a long term need and that they're going to be able to compete with other sources of lithium,” Dobson said.

Are we sure it’s safe for neighboring communities?

Already, Imperial County is known for being an area with some of the worst air quality in the country. This is largely because of toxic dust coming off of the Salton Sea, a body of water which has been shrinking and increasing in salinity for years. This has caused high rates of asthma in the area and other health hazards.

As a result, environmental justice groups have cropped up in Imperial County to fight for their community’s right to clean air and water. Luis Olmedo, executive director of the environmental justice group Comite Civico del Valle, says that his group wants to ensure that projects in the area don’t worsen their health and provide benefits for the community.

Last year, a bill passed approving the creation of the Lithium Valley Commission which is aimed at ensuring community safety as lithium projects advance. Olmedo, who is now a member of the commission, says that it gives him hope that these projects can be done right if they involve community representatives from the beginning.

“We have the potential to become a model for the rest of this country and perhaps for other countries to follow … that lithium can be extracted in a safer way that protects communities and that creates community benefits,” Olmedo said.

A report from the commission is due October 21, 2022, on the opportunities and benefits from lithium recovery in the state. Sylvia Paz, who chairs the commission and is executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley, says that they’re still assessing these benefits and the sustainability of lithium in the area. What’s important, she says, is that companies be intentional about their projects.

“We need to make sure that we're including environmental justice communities at the table and that we don't end up replicating some of the mistakes of the past where communities similar to ours are in close proximity to [a] resource,” Paz said.

When will commercial sale of lithium in the United States begin?

Companies will likely begin commercially extracting lithium in the United States within the next few years.

A representative from one company present at Biden’s presser, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, said that they plan to begin commercial extraction in 2026. EnergySource Minerals has plans to begin even earlier, with an estimated start planned for 2024.

Dobson says that our knowledge around lithium and the impacts of extracting it will only grow as these projects move forward.

“My guess is that, as we get more experience, we’ll get better at doing it,” he said. “The goal is to use as much science as possible to have the first, best start.”

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