Hell’s Kitchen

Jay Owens

A geothermal power station by the Salton Sea, California. Photo © RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy

Last month, Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR) broke ground on the Hell’s Kitchen Lithium and Power project, an integrated geothermal power plant and lithium production facility on the coast of the Salton Sea in Imperial County, Southern California. It should produce enough lithium to make six million car batteries a year, powered by renewable energy and promising near-zero carbon emissions. General Motors is one of the investors. The US government’s taking an interest too: ‘Lithium is vital to decarbonising the economy and achieving President Biden’s climate goals,’ Jeff Marootian from the Department of Energy said at the opening ceremony, ‘which include 50 per cent electric vehicle adoption by 2030.’ The United States currently has ‘limited capabilities for domestically sourced lithium’, he noted, so the Hell’s Kitchen project is an opportunity ‘to supercharge the domestic supply chain’ for electric vehicle batteries.

The Salton Sea lies in a closed or endorheic drainage basin: water flows in, but none flows out; it just evaporates into the desert air. Over the millennia, the sea has come and gone at least four times, refilling most recently in 1905, when spring floods overwhelmed an irrigation canal off the Colorado River. For a while in the 1940s and 1950s it was a holiday resort, marketed as the ‘Salton Riviera’, where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin raced speedboats, and politicians and celebrities came to play in the desert. But the water got sick, the fish began to die, the place started to smell and tourism duly collapsed. For years the crisped skins of dead pupfish and the birds that fed on them would wash up on the shore. The last time I visited, in July 2023, the carcasses were gone and the air was a little clearer: no more fish left to die, the park ranger said.

Endorheic lakes are pollution traps. Streams, rivers and groundwater pick up the residue of everything that happens across thousands of square miles of watershed – pesticides and fertilisers from agriculture, chemicals from industrial discharge, heavy metals from mining waste – and carry it to the lowest point in the basin, where the water evaporates and what’s left is muck. The contaminants aren’t only human-made, however. Water also dissolves minerals in the soil and rock it passes through, picking up metals such as sodium, potassium and calcium, even cadmium and arsenic – and, at the Salton Sea, an enormous amount of lithium, dissolved out of the rock during the Pleistocene epoch by heat from the San Andreas Fault. According to a recent study for the Department of Energy, the brine aquifer below the Salton Sea could produce as much as 3.4 million tonnes of lithium, ‘enough to support over 375 million batteries for electric vehicles – more than the total number of vehicles currently on US roads’.

Lithium is about the thirtieth most abundant element on Earth (rarer than copper, more common than lead) but industrial supply is highly concentrated: most is extracted at fourteen sites in Australia, China and South America. It’s estimated that demand will more than quadruple from 2022 to 2030 and supply will fail to keep up, even if all lithium projects currently in the pipeline are developed ‘aggressively’.

The salars of the Altiplano lead global extraction but the subsequent refining process is dominated by China. To ensure their supply of raw materials, Chinese companies have recently bought stakes in nearly twenty lithium mines, mostly in Latin America and Africa, and at one point the Chinese firm Ganfeng was the largest shareholder of Lithium Americas, which owns the Thacker Pass lithium project in Nevada. You can see why a vertically integrated, all-American operation at the Salton Sea has such political appeal.

The Salton Sea also offers the potential for clean lithium. Conventional production methods – hard-rock mining or hydrocarbon-fuelled brine pumps and evaporation ponds – are highly polluting: they emit CO2 and consume significant quantities of groundwater in desert environments, damaging ecosystems and harming local and Indigenous ways of life.

At the Salton Sea, however, CTR plan to build a hybrid plant that combines geothermal power with a new process known as direct lithium extraction: Hell’s Kitchen will be one of the first sites to operate it at commercial scale. The brines are already being brought to the surface by geothermal power stations that have been operating since the 1980s. The plan is to extract the lithium using ion-exchange technology rather than evaporation: it should be faster and more productive, as well as using up much less water and land. It will be more energy-intensive, but the geothermal power for that is already in place.

Hell’s Kitchen promises a lot: the world’s greenest lithium, 480 construction jobs and, eventually, at least 58,000 clean energy jobs paying around $80,000 a year – the local average is currently $21,000 – as lithium refining and battery production plants are established. ‘It’s great to see the benefit the community is going to get,’ Michael Dea of the Laborers International Union of North America said at the groundbreaking ceremony. ‘We have local hire provisions, apprenticeship standards, everything to come out here and learn construction. It’s going to be a great partnership.’

But local community organisations are appealing against Imperial County’s decision to approve the Hell’s Kitchen project. Luis Olmedo, the executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, says they will ‘fight for our community up to the highest court of the land if we must’. The problem is water.

Last November, Comite Civico del Valle and Earthworks released a report analysing the potential impacts of direct lithium extraction in the Imperial Valley. According to the numbers that the companies provided to Imperial County’s planning department, the Hell’s Kitchen project will consume 6700 acre-feet (more than eight million cubic metres) of water per year just for the first stage of development: it takes 70m3 of water to produce one tonne of lithium. Constructing the plant, scaling up production, and further stages of lithium refining and battery manufacture will all require more water – as will the two new geothermal lithium plants proposed by other companies.

Brawley (population 25,000) gets an average of three inches of rain a year. Freshwater comes from the Colorado River, from which the Imperial Irrigation District holds the rights to 3.1 million acre-feet of water per year. Almost all of this is used for farming (the region’s lettuce crop is worth $200 million a year), with only 25,000 acre-feet reserved for non-agricultural industrial use. At best, this is enough to support barely one-third of the lithium extraction ultimately proposed at Hell’s Kitchen. But the south-western United States is going through a twenty-year megadrought and water usage from the Colorado River must be cut drastically, and soon. If it isn’t, Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, may reach ‘dead pool’ levels as early as 2025, and then no water will flow at all.

There aren’t straightforward solutions. Agricultural water can’t simply be diverted to lithium production because, polluted though it is, its run-off feeds the Salton Sea. Without this water the sea will recede further, and the exposed lakebed will emit even more toxic dust, high in cadmium, copper and selenium. The air in Imperial Valley is bad already: childhood asthma rates are twice the California norm.

CCV are also concerned about the environmental and health impacts of the hydrogen chloride used in direct lithium extraction, CTR’s plans for hazardous waste storage and seismic risks from the expansion of geothermal power. ‘The Imperial Valley has persistently failed to meet federal standards that have consequences in our public health, low-income and disadvantaged communities,’ Olmedo told a public meeting on 22 January. He doesn’t trust the Department of Energy’s claim that local lithium development will have ‘minimal to no impact’ on water, air quality or environmental contamination. ‘CCV holds that these findings need additional vetting from third party and independent academic experts that reflect real and on the ground community experience.’

But CTR got their permits from the county on 23 January. ‘When an opportunity comes our way that will exponentially increase our opportunities for our kids, for our grandkids,’ the planning board chairman said, ‘it’s very hard to turn a cold shoulder.’

CTR know they need to make radical efficiencies. They plan to use condensed steam from the geothermal power plant rather than groundwater, and recycle each gallon at least eight times. Other firms report water recovery rates of 90 per cent or more in direct lithium extraction pilot projects. ‘Getting it down to maybe five or ten or fifteen metric tonnes of freshwater per tonne of lithium is kind of where you want to be,’ the CEO of EnergyX, Teague Egan, told a conference last September. Twenty per cent of California’s lithium extraction tax is allocated to Salton Sea restoration projects, so there should at least be the money (if not the water) to restore habitats and mitigate the dust hazard.

Many in the valley want Hell’s Kitchen to work: CCV and other community organisations aren’t naive to the benefits it would bring. ‘We have a real opportunity right here in Imperial to create a whole new industry standard,’ Olmedo told the Desert Sun in 2022, ‘the gold standard for future development that is more equitable, and more just, that can be replicated across this entire country, and perhaps even the globe.’

But Imperial Valley, Olmedo says, ‘cannot be a sacrifice zone for the clean energy revolution’. That’s the bottom line. Pollution kills as surely as heat, famine or drought. We have to find a way to get the twenty million tons of lithium required for the energy transition without wrecking the planet we’re trying to save.


  • 25 February 2024 at 4:23pm
    Hart says:
    Not discussed: the archaic 'first come first claim' water laws in the Western US. Growing a water-intensive crop like lettuce in a desert? Roughly a third of California's Colorado River allocation goes to a tiny number of farmers in the Imperial Valley, more water than Arizona and Nevada combined can claim. One partner worriedly scrimps on groceries, the other buys multiple luxury SUVs.

    • 25 February 2024 at 8:35pm
      Hart says: @ Hart
      Clarify: NOT a criticism of Ms Owens, whose article is typically well-researched and written.

    • 27 February 2024 at 4:18pm
      Jay Owens says: @ Hart
      Thank you! What's so absurd about the situation you describe is that much of the produce from the Imperial Valley doesn't even stay in-country. The lettuces do, I believe - at least historically, the valley produced much of America's winter salad crop. But the alfalfa (which uses ten feet of water to the lettuces' three) is exported to China and Japan as high-protein cattle feed. The valley appears a monotonous agricultural grid but in reality it's a strange, convoluted geography of 'ghost acres' and 'virtual water' flows operating across many scales of time and space. (Even wilder in Arizona, Nevada and the High Plains, where the water being used for pivot irrigation is pumped from the aquifer and is tens of thousands of years old.)

      Let's see if Tom will let me write about that next.

    • 1 March 2024 at 1:13am
      Hart says: @ Jay Owens
      I vote yes. I recall a Colorado state-level water manager ten (?) years ago responding to a question about the Ogllala with something along the lines of, 'we'll figure that out when we get to it.' Surreal.