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A Lithium Boom in the Desert

In today's story, we take a look at a massive lithium reserve uncovered in California.
Abigail Bassett
Dec 9, 2023 10 min read
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This week, a report unveiled that a struggling area of Southern California could be sitting on what's being called "White Gold,” a massive reserve of lithium that is estimated to be worth upwards of $540 billion, making it potentially one of the largest lithium reserves in the world.

This is especially relevant as EVs and electrification are one of the key levers that countries are using to stem the tide of climate change, and the electrification of transportation was one of the key topics of discussion on Wednesday this week at COP28, which goes until December 12.

"White Gold" in the Imperial Valley

The Imperial Valley stretches inland from Los Angeles and straddles the border between Mexico and the US. It's home to just 180,000 residents and boasts things like the most polluted lake in the state, The Salton Sea, as well as strange landmarks like Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

The study out of the University of California Davis estimated there could be more than enough lithium to produce as many as 357 million batteries for electric vehicles, according to the US Department of Energy, thanks to the 3,400 kilotons of lithium beneath the Imperial Valley. The White House estimates that the demand for lithium will skyrocket by 4000% in the next several decades. The deposits in the Imperial Valley could be worth as much as $7 billion, according to SF Gate. Previously, the only lithium mine in the US was Nevada's Silver Peak, located halfway between Reno and Las Vegas.

For context, the largest automaker in the world, Toyota, sold 10.5 million vehicles globally in 2022. While the company has sold hundreds of thousands of its hybrid Prius vehicles globally, it has dragged its feet to join the electric revolution. That's because management at the company has long been a vocal opponent to battery technology, mainly because executives do not believe there was enough lithium in the world to build EVs and meet their customer's demand.

As a result, Toyota has one battery-electric vehicle currently on the market in the US, a very limited-run SUV that is only available in California (to meet their emissions requirements for manufacturers), with a gobbledygook name: The bZ4x, which I reviewed for TechCrunch.

Lithium Mining Sees a Big Uptick Thanks to EVs

Lithium is one of the critical elements in battery technology today, and mining it is becoming exceedingly lucrative. The cost to extract a ton of lithium is anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 per ton, and it can sell for ten times as much, according to the New York Times.

The price increase has been driven by demand for the unique and relatively plentiful metal, which has several unique capabilities and applications: In salt form, it can treat mood disorders, it burns when it touches water, it was once an ingredient in the original recipe for the soft drink 7-Up, and it can both store and discharge power repeatedly for a very long time.

Lithium is one of the primary keys to getting the world away from fossil fuels and reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. As of 2020, the transport sector contributed approximately 12 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. These figures included carbon dioxide (CO₂), nitrous oxide (N₂O), methane, and black carbon emissions from transportation sources. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, those emissions comprise a significant portion of global GHG emissions. Without major policy changes, these emissions are projected to increase substantially by 2050.

But is Lithium Really the “Greener” Answer for Carbon-Emitting Transportation?

There are plenty of questions about how green the mining, manufacturing, and selling of EVs and their lithium-ion battery packs are, but what is clear is that because transportation makes up a significant part of global carbon emissions, the transition to electric vehicles or EVs will significantly help reduce climate change.

It's important to note that the emissions from electric vehicles depend on various factors. These include the manufacturing process of their batteries and the source of electricity used for charging. According to MIT, building an EV can produce around 80% more emissions than building a comparable gasoline car due to the intensive battery manufacturing process.

However, the most significant source of emissions for EVs comes from charging, which varies based on the energy sources used in different regions. For instance, EVs have a smaller carbon footprint in places where energy is predominantly generated from clean sources like hydropower. Conversely, the benefits are smaller in areas relying heavily on coal for electricity, but EVs still generally outperform gasoline vehicles in terms of emissions. A study cited by MIT found that, on average, gasoline cars emit over 350 grams of CO2 per mile over their lifetimes. In comparison, fully battery-electric vehicles emit just about 200 grams per mile. The US Department of Energy found that EVs produce approximately 3,932 lbs. of CO2 equivalent per year, compared to 11,435 lbs. for gasoline vehicles. These figures, again, can vary significantly based on the region's energy mix–for example, if an EV charges in a region with a cleaner energy grid, it could emit 61% less carbon than a hybrid car. In a state that relies heavily on coal-fired power, an EV would still emit less carbon than a gasoline car but more than a hybrid vehicle.

But Is EV Demand Slowing?

Countries worldwide have cooled on phasing out combustion vehicle sales,–according to a recent report by Bloomberg.

“From 2015 to 2021 the number of countries committing to ending sales of new combustion vehicles rose quickly. This received a big boost in 2021 when the EU announced its target of a 2035 phase-out, but progress has stagnated since then with only a few minor additions to the list over the last two years. Countries with phase-out targets in place now represent 19% of new passenger vehicle sales.”

There has also been an increasing slowdown in EV sales as the initial surge, thanks to early adopters, levels out. That doesn't mean that EVs will go away; it simply means that the market is moving into a more mature phase.

At the same time, as COP28 progresses and false rhetoric around electrification, reliance on oil, and climate change continue to swirl out of the events, it's essential to recognize that the electric transition isn't set in stone.

As this PBS story notes, “Despite rapid growth of electric vehicles in some countries, oil still accounts for nearly 91% of the energy used in the transport sector, according to the International Energy Agency. And it’s a sector that includes hard-to-decarbonize industries like aviation and shipping, where cutting emissions will require big ramp-ups in production of sustainable aviation fuel, for airplanes, and alternative fuels like hydrogen for ships.”

While there’s still a long way to go, the so-called White Gold under the Salton Sea could help move the needle toward a greener future.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett