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An Oasis in the Desert: Geothermal Energy and the Salton Sea

Published on 29 Jan 2015  |   Written by    |   Be the first to comment!

Washed up tilapia carcasses litter the pearly white shoreline. A carelessly placed sign reading “This Park is Closing Due to Budget Cuts” welcomes visitors to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. It is the worst nightmare of every environmental agency. This is the state of affairs that the Salton Sea, a body of water stretching from Riverside to Imperial County, is faced with. In 2012, a rotten odor attributed to the decaying fish from the sea had people from southern California holding their breaths. Combined with rising salinity and falling water levels, the Salton Sea is confronted with its toxic fate: to drain out.

But from this apocalyptic mess comes a glimmer of hope, one that can restore the Salton Sea to its former glory days. The Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA) has the most geothermal capacity potential in the U.S. Currently home to ten geothermal plants, with -- the most recent addition by EnergySource -- the Salton Sea is a goldmine for geothermal potential.

Geothermal energy, the harnessing of heat radiating from the Earth’s crust, is a renewable resource that is capable of cost-effectively generating large amounts of power. In addition, geothermal energy can be relied on to pump out energy 24/7. This reliability makes geothermal viable with invariable fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and nuclear.

It is a no-brainer to tap into the intense geothermal potential offered by the Salton Sea. While other proposals to restore the Salton Sea have not taken off due to lack of funds, a proposal by the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to take advantage of the Salton Sea’s geothermal potential could be the answer to the giant lake’s problems.

Despite my optimism, the geothermal project and the IID face several obstacles. Lack of transmission capability from the Imperial Valley to other hubs in California is a significant obstacle for the project. Currently, most of California’s energy comes from other states, and the infrastructure to move energy within the state does not exist (yet). The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) has highlighted this problem, citing roughly 150 miles of transmission line that would be necessary to transport energy from the Salton Sea to surrounding areas.

Unfortunately, the transmission line is only one of the IID’s worries. The lengthy process of getting approval is another issue that hinders geothermal advancement in the area. The California Energy Commission (CEC) has to approve any projects that may generate 50 megawatts (MW) or more. Other problems include lack of power purchasing agreements and weak demand. Although the Salton Sea has a plethora of issues to deal with, the possibility that it might become an oasis for geothermal energy is promising.

And by no means is that an understatement. The state of California is rife with geothermal plants, and the Salton Sea is only the part with the largest opportunity for growth. Indeed, the Imperial Irrigation District’s (IID) Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative plans to start developing at least 1,700 megawatts (MW) of electricity that could power a million homes. These numbers demonstrate the viability of geothermal energy as a large-scale provider of clean energy. And this opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time, considering California Governor Jerry Brown recently proposed increasing California’s renewable portfolio standard to 50% by 2030. It’s an ambitious goal, but the Salton Sea’s hidden energy prowess could help California achieve it. But the biggest question about geothermal isn’t potential output – it is cost.

Most geothermal projects have high up-front costs that can range from $2 to $7 million for a plant with 1MW of output. But there’s good news: geothermal energy is cost competitive. Geothermal projects are long-term investments, and due to the large potential output of each project, money saved on electricity generation during the length of the project can offset initial costs over time.

Furthermore, state incentives for geothermal in California are one of the best in the country. These include funding for resource assessment, drilling, and technology development. These crucial incentives could easily offset some of the upfront costs of geothermal projects, especially at the Salton Sea. Therefore, not only does geothermal have one of the lowest levelized costs, but running a geothermal plant is significantly more cost friendly than other energy technologies. With the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), Bloomberg, and California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) all backing up this claim, there’s little argument to be had.

If geothermal energy successfully takes off in the Salton Sea, its surrounding regions could see a major increase in jobs. In recent years, unemployment rates in Imperial County have soared to an alarming 25% – one of the highest in the country. The construction and maintenance of geothermal installations would put Imperial County residents back to work. In addition, brine from geothermal plants could result in the extraction of lithium, an ingredient essential to car and cell phone batteries. Plus, geothermal infrastructure could remedy the problem of dust from the exposed seabed drifting into populated areas near the sea.

Fortunately, all is not lost for the accidental sea – the Salton Sea Recreation Area has reopened and as of September 2014, the Federal Salton Sea restoration plans have been approved. This is good news for the environment: the ecology of the sea will remain intact. The question that remains is whether the potential of the rest of the shrinking sea will be utilized. The answer is clear. Geothermal energy can boost the local economy and make the sea more environmentally sound. As the saying goes: When life gives you lemons, sprinkle a dash of salt, and you might stumble upon a wealth of energy. Or in this case – geothermal energy.

Charlotte Lee

Charlotte is a Communications Intern at ACORE.

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