The Stabilizing Role of Geothermal in Geopolitics

Bryant Jones
Anine Pedersen

The world’s energy and critical minerals supply chain have become incredibly interconnected between countries with dissonant ideologies. While this progress is in some ways positive, it also carries with it serious risks. Geopolitical tensions with energy and critical mineral controlling countries pose a threat to national security and technological progress. This was starkly highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent fears that Russia might “turn off the tap” of natural gas which Europe so heavily relies on.

At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Europe depended on Russia to supply 40% of its natural gas demands. No one country could offset European reliance on Russian natural gas. This conflict makes plain the necessity for a rapid, focused effort to reduce Europe’s energy reliance on Russia. One way European countries can and are working towards this goal is by deploying more geothermal energy, especially for cooling and heating of buildings and industry.  A diverse and environmentally conscious clean energy portfolio is an important part of energy security and energy independence, which is why geothermal should make up a larger percentage of electricity generation in America. Geothermal provides clean firm energy that pairs well with solar and wind when it comes to alleviating intermittency due to weather. Energy security in the United States will benefit from having a diversity of technologies. Geothermal is able to generate power for national transmission networks and distributed regional systems in partnership with other low-carbon technologies like solar, wind, hydro, battery storage, and nuclear. 

Critical minerals, such as lithium and manganese, are integral to technological progress and the clean-energy transition because of their use in solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, and more. Existing lithium supply chains are harmful to the mineral security of the United States and are rife with uncertainties. The Russo-Ukrainian War in and increasing ties between Russia and China underscore the geopolitical implications of the mineral-intensive clean energy transformation. China is the leader of lithium processing and actively procures lithium reserves from other major producers. Chinese state-mining operators often own mines in other countries from which vital clean energy minerals are sourced like cobalt and nickel. A domestic source of lithium from geothermal brines will greatly improve American energy and mineral security. 

Geothermal technologies are on the verge of unlocking vast quantities of lithium from naturally occurring hot brines beneath places like the Salton Sea, a two-hour drive from San Diego, California. Battery-grade lithium may be recoverable from naturally occurring geothermal brines after heat and steam are extracted for electrical generation. Accordingly, three geothermal operators at the Salton Sea geothermal field are in various stages of designing, constructing, and testing pilot plants for direct lithium extraction (DLE) from the hot brines, which are unique in their high concentrations of dissolved solids. Once DLE is proven and scaled up to full production capacity, the 11 existing power plants near the Salton Sea (generating 432 MW of clean electricity) could also produce about 20,000 metric tons of lithium metal per year, equal to 106,000 metric tons of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE) per year. 

The annual market value of this LCE would be over $5 billion at current prices ($48,000/ton). This amount of lithium would supply ten times current U.S. demand for lithium metal (2,000 metric tons per year), with enough left over to support a new and self-sufficient domestic lithium battery manufacturing capacity as well as supply lithium exports to the rest of the world. The implications on energy and mineral security, global supply chains, and geopolitics may soon be positively impacted by geothermal technology and innovation like critical mineral recovery from geothermal brines.

Geothermal is unique in its potential to reduce two geopolitical risks with one stone: energy supply, but also critical mineral security. The same hot brine that is used to generate reliable, resilient electricity also contains critical minerals America needs for the clean energy transition, which will ultimately increase our energy independence and security.