The Salton Sea: A Deserted Seascape that Could Come Back to Life with Geothermal Technology

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Back in the 1950s, the Salton Sea area was a happening tourist area. This California tourist hotspot drew thousands of visitors, developers and businesses who thought to take advantage of this paradise surrounded by the desert; one that was created by accident. However, a few years later, it was found that the salt content resulted in serious health issues, and this put surrounding communities in dire straits.

For more than 30 years, the area has been little more than a ghost town. But that may change soon; as there may be geothermal alternative investments coming soon to this area.


The Beginnings

The Salton Sea was formed in the early 1900 as a result of irrigation canals dug from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink. Heavy rains caused the river canals to flood into the scene for many years, and creating the Salton Sea.

For decades, people visited this area, but to a lack of drainage and an increased water flow, the salinity levels grew, which led to mass wildlife death. The unsightly dead fish lining the beach caused tourists and businesses to leave the area.

Today, this sea is deserted, with old remnants of condos, restaurants and other businesses sitting in desolate silence.

salton sea from above
Photo by Phil Konstantin


The Challenge

Environmentalists believe that this is not an area that should be forgotten. They say that if the Salton Sea isn’t saved, it will endanger much of the surrounding wildlife, including birds, that call this area home, or those that use it as a migratory stop off.

This isn’t the only problem: as the sea recedes, its toxic sea floor becomes exposed and contaminates the air and surrounding wildlife. There have been restoration efforts made in the last few decades, but these have little progress. Now scientists believe that there is a solution through geothermal energy options.

Potential Gigawatts

The Salton Sea sits on a large bed of geothermal resources. Scientists estimate the range between 1500 and 3000 MW, making it the largest geothermal reserve in California. And, as the geothermal energy Association president, Karl Gawell, pointed out during the committee meeting in April, this is just the amount known as of now. As the sea continues to recede, there’s more potential for geothermal resources.

In order to use this potential, plans are underway to develop the 1700 MW by 2032. Scientists also believe that this will reduce the toxicity of the lakebed, and the construction of a geothermal plant here can help mitigate the large dust storms that currently affect the area. This will improve the environmental issues and also the potential ability of improving the local economy. David Hoschild of the California Energy Commision says,

“Geothermal growth here can help create important and needed job growth. This will bring sustainable jobs to this area.”


What’s Stopping it from Happening?

For the plan to be put into effect, geothermal experts need to clear several blockages. The need to address transmission issues, procurement processes, permits and more. The problem with geothermal is the location is limited. You can use this in the city or on a rooftop, and Imperial Valley is lacking is necessary transmission capacity for the project.

To go forward, a system would need to be created with a 150 mile transmission line to the main grid substation; a process that would cost between $2 to $4 million per mile. Plus, it takes a long time to build a geothermal power plant.

Despite all of these issues, it really does come down to the California Public Utilities Commission. This geothermal project really depends on the ability to get contracts and to see the real value of geothermal energy.

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