A Treasure Buried Underground

Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, tends to be associated with agriculture, and there are many reasons why this is so. According to the Imperial County’s agricultural report the gross value of farm products reached 2.15 billion dollars in 2013 [1]. That is more money than the GDP of at least 30 countries. In more concrete terms, around 80% of the winter crops consumed in the United States are grown in Imperial County. Since economic geography is continuously changing and in light of California’s ongoing drought and expected changes from the diversion of water to San Diego County, one wonders how big of a role can agriculture continue to play in the region. It is hard to predict what will happen. While the heat and water on the surface are quintessential for the economic powerhouse that is agriculture in this region, the heat and water under its ground evoke another major opportunity that is increasingly becoming more and more important: geothermal power.

Figure 1.

The Imperial Valley is among the regions in the U.S. that harbors the most geothermal power potential (Figure 1) [2]. Geothermal, a more environmental friendly power generation technology than that of coal, oil, gas and nuclear, draws its energy from the heat under the ground. There are currently more than a dozen geothermal plants in the region with new plants continually being developed;
the Imperial Valley Irrigation District has pledged to increase its geothermal capacity by an additional 1,700 MW [3], which is enough to power a million homes (Figure 2) [4]. The US Energy Information Agency places geothermal as one of the most affordable energy sources, with a LCOE (a common measure of cost per kilowatt hour) expected to fall to 5 cents, lower than that of the new gas and coal plants [5]. Reliability is another plus for this energy source, which can work 24/7.

In addition to the revenue from electricity generation some companies are already extracting lithium from geothermal brine. Lithium is a key component for storing energy such as electronic car batteries and will become more valuable as we continue to use more electronic gadgets. As well as Lithium, other minerals that can be extracted from the brine could fetch as much as $400 million annually on top of the revenue generated from the sale of electricity [6]. With California’s goals to generate a larger share of its power from renewables this draws new economic opportunities for the Sea. The building and running of the plants will bring new, high paying, jobs to the region.

Despite all the potential lying under the ground the geothermal development of the region faces quite a few challenges. One of the main obstacles is that of feasibility. New power plants would be required to be in the grid and some estimate that at least 150 new miles of transmission lines will have to be built, with a price ticket of about $2-4 million per mile. California’s renewables goals should foster the relationship between geothermal and utilities, but one common complaint for geothermal energy over other sources is that geothermal is less flexible in the amount of electricity that is produced when more or less is needed. The experts in the field claim that there have been significant improvements on this aspect and that in the future this will be less of an issue.

Figure 2.

Another of the main challenges lies in the environment. Even though geothermal might seem more environmentally friendly than other conventional sources of energy, there still are some environmental trade-offs. Depending on where it is built and on its technology, geothermal can use tons of water, from 1,700 to 4,000 gallons of water per kilowatt-hour. Some claim that enhanced geothermal systems could increase the risk of earthquakes because of the methods they employ that are similar to hydraulic fracturing. However, many claim that geothermal could provide much needed funding for mitigation projects in the Salton Sea, such as preventing the Sea from drying and providing wildlife habitat.

Geothermal will not be the solution to the multi-faceted challenges that the Sea faces. But as society deals with the complex trade-offs surrounding the Sea, the geothermal potential can surely alleviate the economic and environmental constraints and diversify risk.

Written by Gustavo Mellior

[1] “Imperial County Agricultural Crop and Livestock Report 2013”, Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner. http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/ag/crop_&_livestock_reports/Crop_&_Livestock_Report_2013

[2] “Geothermal Resource Potential”, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). http://www.nrel.gov/gis/geothermal.html

[3] “2014 Annual U.S. & Global Geothermal Power Production Report”, Geothermal Energy Association. http://geo-energy.org/events/2014%20Annual%20US%20&%20Global%20Geothermal%20Power%20Prod

[4] “Geothermal Prospector”, NREL. https://maps.nrel.gov/geothermal-prospector/#/?aL=nBy5Q_%255Bv%255D%3Dt&bL=groad&cE=0&lR=0&mC=40.21244%2C-91.625976&zL=4

[5] “How Geothermal Energy Works”, UCSUSA. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/how-geothermal-energy-works.html#references

[6] “At Salton Sea Geothermal Hopes Persist”, Sammy Roth, Desert Sun, September 13 2014. http://www.desertsun.com/story/tech/science/energy/2014/09/13/geothermal-energy-salton-sea/15613995/

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