How a few geothermal plants could solve America’s lithium supply crunch and boost the EV battery industry

A pilot plant near the Salton Sea in California pairs lithium extraction with geothermal energy production. Michael McKibben

by Bryant Jones, Boise State University and Michael McKibben, University of California, Riverside

Geothermal energy has long been the forgotten member of the clean energy family, overshadowed by relatively cheap solar and wind power, despite its proven potential. But that may soon change – for an unexpected reason.

Geothermal technologies are on the verge of unlocking vast quantities of lithium from naturally occurring hot brines beneath places like California’s Salton Sea, a two-hour drive from San Diego.

Lithium is essential for lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and energy storage. Demand for these batteries is quickly rising, but the U.S. is currently heavily reliant on lithium imports from other countries – most of the nation’s lithium supply comes from Argentina, Chile, Russia and China. The ability to recover critical minerals from geothermal brines in the U.S. could have important implications for energy and mineral security, as well as global supply chains, workforce transitions and geopolitics.

As a geologist who works with geothermal brines and an energy policy scholar, we believe this technology can bolster the nation’s critical minerals supply chain at a time when concerns about the supply chain’s security are rising.

A power plant surrounded by fields with a large lake behind it and mountains in the distance.
The Elmore geothermal plant near the Salton Sea began operating in 1989. Berkshire Hathaway Energy

Enough lithium to far exceed today’s US demand

Geothermal power plants use heat from the Earth to generate a constant supply of steam to run turbines that produce electricity. The plants operate by bringing up a complex saline solution located far underground, where it absorbs heat and is enriched with minerals such as lithium, manganese, zinc, potassium and boron.

Geothermal brines are the concentrated liquid left over after heat and steam are extracted at a geothermal plant. In the Salton Sea plants, these brines contain high concentrations – about 30% – of dissolved solids.

If test projects now underway prove that battery-grade lithium can be extracted from these brines cost effectively, 11 existing geothermal plants along the Salton Sea alone could have the potential to produce enough lithium metal to provide about 10 times the current U.S. demand.

How lithium is extracted during geothermal energy production. Courtesy of Controlled Thermal Resources.

Three geothermal operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are in various stages of designing, constructing and testing pilot plants for direct lithium extraction from the hot brines.

At full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea, which currently generate about 432 megawatts of electricity, could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year. The annual market value of this metal would be over $5 billion at current prices.

Satellite image of the Salton Sea showing a wide valley
The Salton Trough, seen from a satellite with the Salton Sea in the middle, is a rift valley that extends from east of Los Angeles, in the upper left, to the Gulf of California, visible at the bottom right. The San Andreas fault system crosses here, where two tectonic plates meet. Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

Geopolitical risks in the lithium supply chain

Existing lithium supply chains are rife with uncertainties that put mineral security in question for the United States.

Russia’s war in Ukraine and competition with China, as well as close ties between Russia and China, underscore the geopolitical implications of the mineral-intensive clean energy transformation.

China is currently the leader in lithium processing and actively procures lithium reserves from other major producers. Chinese state mining operators often own mines in other countries, which produce other vital clean energy minerals like cobalt and nickel.

There is currently one lithium production facility in the U.S. That facility, in Nevada, extracts saline liquid and concentrates the lithium by allowing the water to evaporate in large, shallow ponds. In contrast, the process for extracting lithium while producing geothermal energy returns the water and brines to the earth. Adding another domestic source of lithium could improve energy and mineral security for the United States and its allies.

By pairing with geothermal power production, lithium extraction reduces the need for excess water consumption.

A lack of policy support

Geothermal power today represents less than 0.5% of the utility-scale electricity generation in the U.S.

One reason it remains a stagnant energy technology in the U.S. is the lack of strong policy support. Preliminary findings from a research study being conducted by one of us indicate that part of the problem is rooted in disagreements among older and newer geothermal companies themselves, including how they talk about geothermal energy’s benefits with policymakers, investors, the media and the public.

Geothermal power has the ability to complement solar and wind energy as a baseload power source – it is constant, unlike sunshine and wind – and to provide energy and mineral security. It could also offer a professional bridge for oil, gas and coal employees to transition into the clean energy economy.

The industry could benefit from policies like risk mitigation funds to lessen drilling exploration costs, grant programs to demonstrate innovations, long-term power contracts or tax incentives.

Adding the production of critical metals like lithium, manganese and zinc from geothermal brines could provide geothermal electrical power operators a new competitive advantage and help get geothermal onto the policy agenda.

Geothermal energy gets a boost in California

Trends might be moving in the right direction for geothermal energy producers.

In February, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted a new Preferred System Plan that encourages the state to develop 1,160 megawatts of new geothermal electricity. That’s on top of a 2021 decision to procure 1,000 megawatts from zero emissions, renewable, firm generating resources with an 80% capacity factor – which can only be met by geothermal technologies.

The California decisions were primarily meant to complement intermittent renewable energy, like solar and wind, and the retirement of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. They suggest that the era of geothermal as the forgotten renewable energy may be ending.

Bryant Jones, Ph.D. Candidate of Energy Policy, Boise State University and Michael McKibben, Research Professor of Geology, University of California, Riverside

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a breakthrough in geothermal could change our energy grid

Read the video transcript at Grist.

Newberry Volcano — the largest volcano in the Pacific Northwest — is the site of an experiment that’s aiming for a breakthrough in geothermal energy. 

How a few geothermal plants could solve America’s lithium supply crunch and boost the EV battery industry

A pilot plant near the Salton Sea in California pairs lithium extraction with geothermal energy production. Michael McKibben

by Bryant Jones, Boise State University and Michael McKibben, University of California, Riverside

Geothermal energy has long been the forgotten member of the clean energy family, overshadowed by relatively cheap solar and wind power, despite its proven potential. But that may soon change – for an unexpected reason.

Geothermal technologies are on the verge of unlocking vast quantities of lithium from naturally occurring hot brines beneath places like California’s Salton Sea, a two-hour drive from San Diego.

Lithium is essential for lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and energy storage. Demand for these batteries is quickly rising, but the U.S. is currently heavily reliant on lithium imports from other countries – most of the nation’s lithium supply comes from Argentina, Chile, Russia and China. The ability to recover critical minerals from geothermal brines in the U.S. could have important implications for energy and mineral security, as well as global supply chains, workforce transitions and geopolitics.

As a geologist who works with geothermal brines and an energy policy scholar, we believe this technology can bolster the nation’s critical minerals supply chain at a time when concerns about the supply chain’s security are rising.

A power plant surrounded by fields with a large lake behind it and mountains in the distance.
The Elmore geothermal plant near the Salton Sea began operating in 1989. Berkshire Hathaway Energy

Enough lithium to far exceed today’s US demand

Geothermal power plants use heat from the Earth to generate a constant supply of steam to run turbines that produce electricity. The plants operate by bringing up a complex saline solution located far underground, where it absorbs heat and is enriched with minerals such as lithium, manganese, zinc, potassium and boron.

Geothermal brines are the concentrated liquid left over after heat and steam are extracted at a geothermal plant. In the Salton Sea plants, these brines contain high concentrations – about 30% – of dissolved solids.

If test projects now underway prove that battery-grade lithium can be extracted from these brines cost effectively, 11 existing geothermal plants along the Salton Sea alone could have the potential to produce enough lithium metal to provide about 10 times the current U.S. demand. https://www.youtube.com/embed/oYtyEVPGEU8?wmode=transparent&start=0 How lithium is extracted during geothermal energy production. Courtesy of Controlled Thermal Resources.

Three geothermal operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are in various stages of designing, constructing and testing pilot plants for direct lithium extraction from the hot brines.

At full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea, which currently generate about 432 megawatts of electricity, could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year. The annual market value of this metal would be over $5 billion at current prices.

Satellite image of the Salton Sea showing a wide valley
The Salton Trough, seen from a satellite with the Salton Sea in the middle, is a rift valley that extends from east of Los Angeles, in the upper left, to the Gulf of California, visible at the bottom right. The San Andreas fault system crosses here, where two tectonic plates meet. Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory

Geopolitical risks in the lithium supply chain

Existing lithium supply chains are rife with uncertainties that put mineral security in question for the United States.

Russia’s war in Ukraine and competition with China, as well as close ties between Russia and China, underscore the geopolitical implications of the mineral-intensive clean energy transformation.

China is currently the leader in lithium processing and actively procures lithium reserves from other major producers. Chinese state mining operators often own mines in other countries, which produce other vital clean energy minerals like cobalt and nickel.

There is currently one lithium production facility in the U.S. That facility, in Nevada, extracts saline liquid and concentrates the lithium by allowing the water to evaporate in large, shallow ponds. In contrast, the process for extracting lithium while producing geothermal energy returns the water and brines to the earth. Adding another domestic source of lithium could improve energy and mineral security for the United States and its allies.

By pairing with geothermal power production, lithium extraction reduces the need for excess water consumption.

A lack of policy support

Geothermal power today represents less than 0.5% of the utility-scale electricity generation in the U.S.

One reason it remains a stagnant energy technology in the U.S. is the lack of strong policy support. Preliminary findings from a research study being conducted by one of us indicate that part of the problem is rooted in disagreements among older and newer geothermal companies themselves, including how they talk about geothermal energy’s benefits with policymakers, investors, the media and the public.

Geothermal power has the ability to complement solar and wind energy as a baseload power source – it is constant, unlike sunshine and wind – and to provide energy and mineral security. It could also offer a professional bridge for oil, gas and coal employees to transition into the clean energy economy.

The industry could benefit from policies like risk mitigation funds to lessen drilling exploration costs, grant programs to demonstrate innovations, long-term power contracts or tax incentives.

Adding the production of critical metals like lithium, manganese and zinc from geothermal brines could provide geothermal electrical power operators a new competitive advantage and help get geothermal onto the policy agenda.

Geothermal energy gets a boost in California

Trends might be moving in the right direction for geothermal energy producers.

In February, the California Public Utilities Commission adopted a new Preferred System Plan that encourages the state to develop 1,160 megawatts of new geothermal electricity. That’s on top of a 2021 decision to procure 1,000 megawatts from zero emissions, renewable, firm generating resources with an 80% capacity factor – which can only be met by geothermal technologies.

The California decisions were primarily meant to complement intermittent renewable energy, like solar and wind, and the retirement of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. They suggest that the era of geothermal as the forgotten renewable energy may be ending.

Bryant Jones, Ph.D. Candidate of Energy Policy, Boise State University and Michael McKibben, Research Professor of Geology, University of California, Riverside

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Solar-powered heat pumps warm Upper Peninsula homes for less

Read the full story from Michigan Tech.

Two new Michigan Tech studies show how heating with electric heat pumps is good for the environment — and the Upper Peninsula’s wallet, especially when paired with solar energy.

The geothermal option — an opportunity not to be missed

Read the full story at The Hill.

Many U.S. presidents, congressional and state leaders — and an increasing number of businesses, large and small — are emphasizing that our energy system must reduce carbon emissions and use more sustainable resources. They also support fixing our infrastructure. Repairing bridges and roads and deploying renewable domestic wind and solar energy systems as substitutes for coal- and gas-fired electricity generation will have complementary effects if done correctly. These changes will lower our carbon emissions, provide good job opportunities and make us more competitive. But repairing bridges and roads and increasing solar and wind energy are not enough to achieve the critical improvements that we need. We need a comprehensive plan to transform our energy supply system to dramatically lower our carbon footprint and improve the vitality and livability of our communities and cities. Using geothermal energy for heating offers a solution to both goals.  

Electric heat pumps use much less energy than furnaces, and can cool houses too – here’s how they work

Heating or cooling? I do both. FanFan61618/Flickr, CC BY-SA

by Robert Brecha (University of Dayton)

To help curb climate change, President Biden has set a goal of lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030. Meeting this target will require rapidly converting as many fossil fuel-powered activities to electricity as possible, and then generating that electricity from low-carbon and carbon-free sources such as wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear energy.

The buildings that people live and work in consume substantial amounts of energy. In 2019, commercial and residential buildings accounted for more than one-seventh of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. New heating and cooling strategies are an important piece of the puzzle.

Fortunately, there’s an existing technology that can do this: electric heat pumps that are three to four times more efficient than furnaces. These devices heat homes in winter and cool them in summer by moving heat in and out of buildings, rather than by burning fossil fuel.

As a scientist focusing on renewable and clean energy, I study energy use in housing and what slowing climate change means for industrialized and developing countries. I see powering buildings with clean, renewable electricity as an essential strategy that also will save consumers money.

Heat pumps draw in air from the outside and use the difference in temperature between indoor and outdoor air to heat buildings. Many also provide cooling, using nearly the same mechanism.

Heat pumps work by moving heat, not air

Most heating systems in the U.S. use forced-air furnaces that run on natural gas or electricity, or in some cases heating oil. To heat the building, the systems burn fuel or use electricity to heat up air, and then blow the warm air through ducts into individual rooms.

A heat pump works more like a refrigerator, which extracts energy from the air inside the fridge and dumps that energy into the room, leaving the inside cooler. To heat a building, a heat pump extracts energy from outdoor air or from the ground and converts it to heat for the house.

Here’s how it works: Extremely cold fluid circulates through coils of tubing in the heat pump’s outdoor unit. That fluid absorbs energy in the form of heat from the surrounding air, which is warmer than the fluid. The fluid vaporizes and then circulates into a compressor. Compressing any gas heats it up, so this process generates heat. Then the vapor moves through coils of tubing in the indoor unit of the heat pump, heating the building.

In summer, the heat pump runs in reverse and takes energy from the room and moves that heat outdoors, even though it’s hotter outside – basically, functioning like a bigger version of a refrigerator.

More efficient than furnaces

Heat pumps require some electricity to run, but it’s a relatively small amount. Modern heat pump systems can transfer three or four times more thermal energy in the form of heat than they consume in electrical energy to do this work – and that the homeowner pays for.

In contrast, converting energy from one form to another, as conventional heating systems do, always wastes some of it. That’s true for burning oil or gas to heat air in a furnace, or using electric heaters to heat air – although in that case, the waste occurs when the electricity is generated. About two-thirds of the energy used to produce electricity at a power plant is lost in the process.

Retrofitting residences and commercial buildings with heat pumps increases heating efficiency. When combined with a switch from fossil fuels to renewables, it further lowers energy use and carbon emissions.

Going electric

Infographic advertising rebates for installing geothermal heat pumps in New Jersey.
Geothermal heat pumps may be a better option than air-source versions in colder climates. NJDEP

Growing restrictions on fossil fuel use and proactive policies are driving sales of heat pumps in the U.S. and internationally. Heat pumps are currently used in 5% of heating systems worldwide, a share that will need to increase to one-third by 2030 and much higher after to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

In warmer areas with relatively low heating demands, heat pumps are cheaper to run than furnaces. Tax credits, utility rebates or other subsidies may also provide incentives to help with up-front costs, including federal incentives reinstated by the Biden administration.

In extremely cold climates, these systems have an extra internal heater to help out. This unit is not as efficient and can significantly run up electric bills. People who live in cold locations may want to consider geothermal heat pumps as an alternative.

These systems leverage the fact that ground temperature is warmer than the air in winter. Geothermal systems collect warmth from the earth and use the same fluid and compressor technology as air source heat pumps to transfer heat into buildings. They cost more, since installing them involves excavation to bury tubing below ground, but they also reduce electricity use.

New, smaller “mini-split” heat pump systems work well in all but the coldest climates. Instead of requiring ducts to move air through buildings, these systems connect to wall-mounted units that heat or cool individual rooms. They are easy to install and can be selectively used in individual apartments, which makes retrofitting large buildings easier.

Even with the best heating and cooling systems, installing proper insulation and sealing building leaks are key to reducing energy use. You can also experiment with your thermostat to see how little you can heat or cool your home while keeping everyone in it comfortable.

Mini split heat pump indoor unit mounted over a fireplace.
A new mini split heat pump system. Robert Brecha, CC BY-ND

For help figuring out whether a heat pump can work for you, one good source of information is your electricity provider. Many utilities offer home energy audits that can identify cost-effective ways to make your home more energy-efficient. Other good sources include the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. As the push to electrify society gains speed, heat pumps are ready to play a central role.

Robert Brecha, Professor of Sustainability, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UIUC’s largest geothermal system goes online

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

The largest geothermal energy system implemented at the university so far went online in April, at the Campus Instructional Facility (CIF) ahead of its opening this coming fall. The CIF system is the fifth geothermal installation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and can provide 135 tons of heating and/or cooling, twice as much as the next most recent geothermal installation on campus property.

Located at the southeast corner of Springfield Avenue and Wright Street in Urbana, the $75M CIF is a state-of-the-art 122,000 gross square foot facility that will support The Grainger College of Engineering’s transformative learning and teaching environments. The geothermal system comprises 40 vertical borehole exchange loops in the adjacent Bardeen Quadrangle and has enough capacity to handle the energy needed for approximately 30 American homes.

Groundswell of support heats geothermal innovation

Read the full story in Power Magazine.

There’s new interest in one of the world’s oldest resources, as governments and investors worldwide look for advanced ways to tap geothermal energy.

DOE announces $12 million to advance geothermal energy technologies

Applications are due by 5:00 p.m. ET on June 15, 2021.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced up to $12 million for technologies that can make geothermal systems more efficient for clean, renewable energy production. This funding will help scientists and engineers unlock the full potential of geothermal power to help tackle the climate crisis, and achieve the Biden Administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) are man-made reservoirs created by injecting fluid into “hot rock,” which is heated by the natural warmth of the Earth’s core. The fluid re-opens pre-existing fractures, allowing it to circulate through the hot rock, and bring the heated water to the surface. That hot water becomes steam that spins a turbine, creating clean, renewable energy.

“Enhanced geothermal systems harness the clean, renewable energy that lives right beneath our feet—available at any time, in any weather, in any part of the country. This new funding will help us tap into its enormous potential to power millions of homes and businesses, reduce carbon emissions, and put thousands to work in greener, good-paying jobs.”

Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm

The “Innovative Methods to Control Hydraulic Properties of Enhanced Geothermal Systems” funding opportunity will support the research, development, demonstration, and deployment of technologies and techniques to control the fluid flow in EGS reservoirs, enhancing the connectivity of pre-existing fracture networks and optimizing them for heat mining. This ability to customize reservoirs will increase their efficiency and longevity—driving down EGS costs, reducing the risk of development, and accelerating the path towards widespread commercialization.

The 2019 GeoVision study by DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) concluded that with technology improvements like those funded by today’s announcement, geothermal power generation could increase 26-fold, deploying 60 gigawatts-electric (GWe) of clean energy by 2050. Despite that vast potential, there are only 3.7 GWe of geothermal energy currently installed in the United States. GTO is using its research and development portfolio to advance technologies and projects that can rapidly increase that number, while supporting thousands of good-paying jobs for American workers—including those in the oil and gas industries that already have matching skills and expertise.

GTO is looking for applications that address the funding opportunity review criteria in full.

More information about the funding opportunity here.

Geothermal startups get another boost from Chevron as the oil giant backs a geothermal project developer

Read the full story at Tech Crunch.

The U.S.-based oil major Chevron is doubling down on its investment in geothermal power by investing in a Swedish developer of low-temperature geothermal and heat power projects called Baseload Capital.