The plan to tap the mammoth geothermal potential of the Salton Sea, and to generate a revenue stream to help restore California's largest lake, took a major step last week when the state Senate approved a bill by two Coachella Valley legislators.
By a largely party-line vote, Senate Bill 1139 by Sen. Ben Hueso and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez was approved 21-11. It would require utilities to commit to contracting for 500 megawatts of new geothermal baseload power by 2024. The Assembly Rules Committee will assign it to a committee next week.
Hueso, a San Diego Democrat whose district covers the Salton Sea, said the bill would expand the use of geothermal power to help the state reach its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Fully developed, the Salton Sea Known Geothermal Resource Area could power 2.5 million homes. The area is one of the largest and highest-temperature geothermal resources in North America, according to Denis Norton, a University of Arizona geologist who has studied geothermal power for 45 years.
Over the past two decades, 10 geothermal plants have been built around the sea. EnergySource, a Southern California company, opened Hudson Ranch 1, a plant designed to generate 49.1 megawatts, in 2012. It is the 11th plant. The potential for more is vast.
Under the timeline proposed by the bill, construction of new plants to establish the new baseload — the constant rate of energy — could begin as early as January. The California Energy Commission would determine the proportionate share of the 500 megawatts each utility would be required to procure by June 30, 2015. That would depend on projected retail sales in 2018. Each retail seller would be required to file a plan with the commission by Jan. 1, 2016, on how to make the baseload distribution work.
There is strong local support for SB 1139. The boards of supervisors from Riverside and Imperial counties, the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, the Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Salton Sea Authority, the Imperial Irrigation District and other regional and statewide groups back the bill.
However, there is opposition from three of the state's leading utilities — Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric — and the California Chamber of Commerce. The chamber argues that a mandate is "not a sound method for creating an affordable and reliable energy supply."
The Desert Sun hopes geothermal power — like any form of energy — would be competitively priced. But the assurance that there would be a market for geothermal energy is essential to lure private investment in the Salton Sea's geothermal potential. And tapping that potential is critical to making the Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative succeed.
Assembly members also should keep in mind that the unemployment rate in Imperial County has been higher than 25 percent for many years, among the highest in the country. If any region in California needs an economic boost, it's the Salton Sea. Each new plant generates 200 construction jobs over two years, said Lourdes Jiminez, a spokeswoman for Sen. Hueso. She couldn't speculate about how many permanent jobs would be created, but Hudson Ranch 1 employs 55 people. Minerals such as lithium, which is used in batteries for electric vehicles, can be extracted from the brine around geothermal plants. An IID study projects that $1.5 billion could be generated by lithium from the sea over the next three decades.
Geothermal is nonpolluting and costs 80 percent less than power generated by fossil fuels, according to the Geothermal Energy Association. It produces power constantly, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. It makes sense to convert the hot desert sun into energy and to capture wind power that blows through the San Gorgonio Pass. It also makes sense to tap into the heat from the Earth that is so abundant around the Salton Sea.
The Desert Sun encourages the Assembly to approve SB 1139 and the governor to sign it.