Talk of industrial hemp production was all the rage at day one of the Imperial Valley Energy Summit, while day two was ruled by the popularity of the geothermal energy and its partner, mineral extraction.
The Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp. staged the 12th annual summit April 24-26. The first two days were made up of guest speakers, panel discussions and breakout sessions at Imperial Valley College.
The final day was mostly tours around energy facilities in Imperial County, including Imperial Irrigation District’s large-scale battery-energy storage system and EnergySource’s geothermal plant near the Salton Sea.
The meet of the three-day event was the first two days as representatives from energy firms from throughout the United States came face to face with local government officials and other renewable energy stakeholders to mingle, network and try to establish themselves in one of the country’s renewable energy hotbeds.
“This is a good chance to showcase Imperial County to all the visitors from around the nation,” District 3 Imperial County Supervisor Michael Kelley said April 25. “We have a bright future in Imperial County. We cannot let it slip through our fingers.”
“It’s good to bring together all of these people interested in (pursuing renewable energy) opportunities in the county,” Imperial County board Chairman Ryan Kelley said April 25. “I think it (the focus of the Energy Summit) does need to change to bring in more than just renewables …”
However, Ryan Kelley added, “It’s useful to our agencies to have networking with developers and concepts.”
The ultimate goal for the county is job creation. While there wasn’t any specific employment numbers to speak of, county officials said they feel the geothermal industry and mineral extraction from the geothermal “brine,” or byproduct, and the agricultural production of industrial hemp will create hundreds of local jobs in the coming years.
A geothermal plant creates electricity using underground hot water brought up through wells. However, the water, which is re-injected back into the ground, has a high mineral concentration. Extracting those minerals is seen as an ancillary industry that could create many jobs.
While Michael Kelley said he doesn’t see many jobs being created in the immediate future, he added, “but long-term is pretty dynamic … the investigation of hemp and lithium extraction, once that happens, I think it will explode here.”
IVEDC Executive Director Tim Kelley pointed to Australia’s Controlled Thermal Resources as a major job creator on the cusp of beginning construction on what will become the largest geothermal energy plant in North America.
“Their geothermal plant will be a large job creator, and their lithium extraction facilities could double the amount of jobs you would find in a normal geothermal plant,” Tim Kelley said.
He added Controlled Thermal Resources is scheduled to kick off construction of its geothermal plant and mineral extraction facility by the end of 2018.
What seemed to be the most well-attended event on April 25 was the afternoon panel discussion, “Geothermal Tomorrow: New Developments and Mineral Extraction,” featuring, among other panelists, Controlled Thermal Resources Chief Executive Officer Rod Colwell, Vince Signorotti of EnergySource, and Will Pettitt of the Geothermal Resource Council.
Pettitt, whose organization boasts 1,200 members in 44 countries, stressed the need for long-term thinking in the geothermal industry now that the state of California has Senate Bill 100 on the books. It calls for 100 percent of retail energy to come from renewable sources by 2045.
“We really need long-term thinking and we need it now,” he said.
He explained the development of geothermal energy has a long lead time in development, and its capital costs are much higher than other renewable resources such as wind and solar. In addition, the state is in need of a major upgrade and expansion of its transmission capabilities to facilitate the movement of energy around the powerline grid.
“The geothermal community needs to collaborate” and be flexible, Pettitt said, creating synergy with not just advocates of other renewable resources, but with the oil, gas and mining industries.
Supervisors’ Chairman Ryan Kelley, who would later speak about how legislative policy affects renewable energy development, told the Calexico Chronicle in between sessions geothermal energy has been a hard sell to state lawmakers in recent years. Many tax credits and opportunities have instead gone to wind and solar, but he said geothermal is once again gaining some favor as companies such as Controlled Thermal Resources and EnergySource push ahead with plants and mineral extraction.
Mineral extraction, Ryan Kelley indicated, has companies “pivoting” away from talk of geothermal only.
“They can’t get the interest in geothermal plants, but they can in lithium extraction,” he said.
Ryan Kelley added the county wants to see the emphasis put back on geothermal because of its ability to create more jobs, as well as revenue for the county through increased property and other taxes. Developing the geothermal industry near the Salton Sea also factors into plans for its restoration and pollution mitigation.
“Geothermal has a bigger impact in job creation and property tax. … We’ve been waiting to see geothermal get a level playing field with other renewable projects,” Ryan Kelley said. “It has not happened.”
He added the county, working with local stakeholders such as IID, state lawmakers and lobbyists, have “made multiple attempts to have legislation address the need for new geothermal development in California” and that during “this past legislative session, we came up short again in Sacramento.”
Ryan Kelley added the county has even gone through the regulatory process with the Public Utilities Commission and the Energy Commission and “we still cannot get the attention on geothermal.”
Ultimately, he said, the county wants to see legislation that says “We want to see 500 megawatts of new geothermal because where are you going to get that energy but here in Imperial County?”
He said that kind of language has been requested in two bills over the last four years but has not made the cut into law.
That seems to where the extraction of minerals, and other ancillary developments to geothermal, can come into play, he said. That was also the point made repeatedly during the panel discussion.
Pettitt talked about adding value to future geothermal projects not just by lithium mining, but even hydrogen production, desalination, hybrid solar projects and further mining.
Controlled Thermal Resources’ Colwell, when talking about his company’s project, did not lead his discussion with talk of energy production, but with mineral extraction. He cited the major supply gap vs. the demand for minerals such as lithium, which is being driven by the electric-vehicle industry and the development of utility-scale battery storage.
Colwell spoke of the conventional ways that lithium, for instance, is being mined around the world today through massive evaporation ponds and strip mining, methods that are “expensive and leave large physical footprints.”
The process that Controlled Thermal Resources will use will leave a small footprint, contain no open cut mining, use minimal water comparatively and be powered by 100 percent renewable resources (the geothermal production), Colwell said.
As for the technology for extracting minerals from the brine of geothermal production, Colwell said it’s been around for 60 years.
Although Signorotti’s portion of the panel presentation was geared more toward what EnergySource is doing at its Hudson Ranch I geothermal plant now, he teased the fact that EnergySource is going “back to the future” and will develop large-scale mineral extraction, too.
The reason Signorotti termed it “back to the future” is because, he said, the technology to extract lithium and minerals has been in place in the Imperial Valley since the 1950s. Signorotti added back then plants were focused on extracting precious metals like gold, silver and platinum, but those early attempts were all gone by the mid-1960s.
“We’re working on a minerals project beyond proof of concept,” Signorotti said. “As soon as next year we will be able to talk about new developments.”
He added, “We’re committed to mineral extraction at the Salton Sea.”
Speaking to the potential, Colwell said area around the Salton Sea in which geothermal plants can be constructed is perhaps 320,000 acres, and added it is “the most studied geothermal resource on the planet.”
Next: Part 2, the industrial hemp industry