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Can Geothermal Energy Save California’s Salton Sea?

Back in the 1950’s, the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, California was a tourist hotspot drawing in thousands of tourists, developers and businesses looking to take advantage of the paradise in the desert – and it was all an accident. Now, the sea and its surrounding communities are in dire straits, and their only savior may be an industry that is struggling in its own right: geothermal.

The Rise and Fall

The Salton Sea was formed in the early 1900’s when a development company dug irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the Salton sink. Eventually, heavy precipitation caused the river and canals to flood and spill massive amounts of water into the sink for several years, thus forming the Salton Sea.

Though the sea saw decades of success, unfortunately a tiger cannot change it stripes — a desert sea isn't sustainable and nature took its course. Due to its lack of drainage and consistent water flow, salinity levels rose, which led to mass fish deaths. The sight of dead fish lining the beach and the subsequent stench caused tourists and eventually business to leave the area in droves. Now, the area is mostly deserted, with only deteriorating remnants of condos and serving as a reminder of its past.

Environmentalists warn that if the Salton Sea isn’t saved, it will endanger hundreds of species of birds that call the body of water home or use it as a crucial migratory pit stop — but birds aren't the only ones in trouble. As the Sea recedes its toxic sea floor is exposed, which contaminates the arid air and endangers all life in the surrounding area.

Restoration efforts have been underway for decades with little progress, but planners now think they have the ultimate solution in geothermal energy.

Gigawatts of Potential Meet Serious Roadblocks

The Salton Sea sits on a massive hotbed of geothermal resources estimated between 1,500 and 2,900 megawatts (MW), according to recent reports from the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), which makes it the largest identified geothermal reserve in California. The resource is hot enough for traditional geothermal technology (200-350 degrees Celcius), and as GEA executive director Karl Gawell pointed out during a senate committee meeting in April, this is just the known resource. As the sea continues to recede, greater potential will likely be revealed.

“Typically [geothermal] resource numbers go from the bottom up, like the oil and gas industry. We don’t know the full potential of something that is there until we’ve drilled it,” said Gawell.

In order to tap this potential, the IID established a plan to incrementally develop 1,700 MW by 2032.

Credit: Geothermal Energy Association

Experts also believe that geothermal will be able to mitigate disbursement of the toxic lakebed. Since the land is too salty for plant growth that typically helps prevent large dust storms, geothermal plant infrastructure may be able to help fill this gap by keeping the sand in place. 

Not only will the plan improve environmental qualities and overall health, it also has the potential to finally improve the long-suffering local economy.

“There are a lot of challenges in these areas — high unemployment, a non-diverse economic basis,” said explained David Hochschild of California Energy Commission. “Geothermal can help create jobs. Sustainable policies can help bring sustainable jobs. We want to increase pay quality and this is a project that will help accomplish that.”

Of course in order for this plan to move along, planners need to clear several blockages from the long road ahead. “There are a lot of moving parts to the project,” said GEA analyst Benjamin Matek. “Before it can happen, they need to address transmission, a procuring process, permitting and more.”

Analysts agree that the most significant dilemma is transmission. Unfortunately for geothermal, “location is limited to where resource is,” explained Hochschild. “You can’t put it in the middle of the city or on a rooftop.” The Imperial Valley is severely lacking the necessary transmission capacity for this project. In order to move forward, IID and the California Independent System Operator propose a 150-mile, 500-kV transmission line that would connect to a main grid substation.

IID estimates that this line would cost $2-4 million per mile. The cost of the new transmission line could be recovered under California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) Transmission Revenue Requirement (TRR), however “the process for developing a transmission line of this size would require some certainty as to cost recovery through approved rates,” according to the GEA report.

Once transmission is established, the IID proposed expedited permitting for the entire region, which is a process that can typically take several years. “It takes a long time to build a power plant and any time to shave that process will save money,” noted Matek.

Then it all comes down to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Hochschild said the future of the Salton Sea rests on whether or not projects can get contracts, and the committee needs to make [the PUC] “see the values of geothermal.” 

California’s Dilemma

California has evaluated its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) on a “least cost, best fit” concept, which suggests that each resource has different attributes that the electricity system may require. Up until now, it has put its focus on “least cost,” which typically results in solar and wind projects, according to Jan Smutny-Jones, CEO of Independent Energy Producers, a trade association representing non-utility-owned generation in California. For example, if a solar PV project goes up against a solar PV project with storage, the traditional PV project will win due to costs. This focus on intermittent renewable generation has brought up questions of grid stability.

“We’ve been collectively killing off the concept of a portfolio…This is the result of us not taking a more holistic view to what the energy mix will look like,” said Smunty-Jones. “Coming up with a non-zero best fit attribute will be the best use of everyone’s time. How do we bring in a broad mix of energy resources?”

Smunty-Jones also brought up the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear plant in early 2014, as well as the retirement of a significant amount of coal capacity, which leaves the door open for new baseload and flexible power like geothermal. Some geothermal technology has proven it can ramp up and down with power needs, like ORMAT’s Puna plant in Hawaii. Since the nuclear plant was in southern California, the Salton Sea project may be a viable replacement.

While California seriously considers its energy tactics, Gawell believes it is “ground zero” for geothermal policy that can be highlighted as part of an overall diverse renewable energy portfolio. 

“The amount of money involved at front end of geothermal projects is a big barrier, and projects don't move forward without a contract in hand — it’s an issue of valuation,” said Gawell. “There is a value to having a diverse portfolio. I don't think anyone is proposing that geothermal is going to come in an do away with wind and solar, but geothermal can play an important role as a holistic part of the California energy portfolio.”

Hochschild agreed that each technology must be considered in order to have a successful portfolio and energy economy. “I think of renewables as raising a family, we want every kid to succeed. Right now solar and wind are in good shape, but there is a lot more potential with geothermal. We need to think about what each technology needs to grow and thrive.”

Lead image: Salton Sea via Shutterstock

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