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NREL Study on Using Renewable Energy to Benefit Salton Sea Restoration Projects Lower Revenue Streams than Previous Estimates, Highlights Desalination Using Renewable Energy as Feasible Solution

In November 2015, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (“NREL”) released The Potential for Renewable Energy Development to Benefit Restoration of the Salton Sea: Analysis of Technical and Market Potential as a follow-on study to a 2013 preliminary study by Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”).

The 2013 IID study estimated that renewable energy projects in the Salton Sea region could provide $4.1 billion in revenue over the 30-year period from 2016 through 2045. The NREL study was produced with the stated purpose “to confirm and refine these prior revenue potential estimates, provide a technical review of the renewable energy technologies under consideration, and develop estimates of the region’s developable production potential through the year 2030.”

The NREL study evaluated a number of renewable energy technologies and their coproducts; including electricity production from geothermal, solar photovoltaic, concentrating solar power, and salinity-gradient solar ponds; hydrogen production; mineral recovery from geothermal fluids; and algae pond cultivation, which would provide biofuels and nutraceuticals. The researchers found that electricity production from geothermal, solar photovoltaic, and concentrating solar power had the greatest technical potential for development. These options would be constrained by the proximity of the project to transmission access and the regional cost-competitiveness of the electricity. In addition, development of projects on the playa would be constrained by the rate at which the shoreline recedes, and the two solar technologies may be limited in scale due to the limited availability of contiguous land parcels.

An additional revenue stream—geothermal land lease royalties—was also considered. Researchers found that this potential revenue stream is available currently, but noted that changes in federal and state policy could lead to greater revenues from this source.

Overall, the NREL study concluded that geothermal land lease royalties could generate annual revenues of $7 million to $15 million. Development of renewable energy projects could generate $5.6 million to $77.8 million per year—“but are dependent on future changes in technology and policy conditions.”

In addition to considering renewable energy projects as a revenue stream, the NREL study explored the possibility of using these technologies to directly impact salinity levels in the Salton Sea. Researchers concluded that desalination using renewable energy is technologically feasible; with use of geothermal or solar thermal energy presenting the most interesting case because it provides for smooth, around-the-clock operation. And alternative revenue streams, such as salt sales, can be used to offset costs.

With deliveries of mitigation water to the Salton Sea set to end in 2017 under the long-term water transfer agreement between IID and San Diego County Water Authority (“SDCWA”), IID has been advocating that the state restore the Salton Sea. In November 2014, IID filed a petition with the State Water Resources Control Board to modify the 2002 water right order governing the IID-SDCWA water transfer to make Salton Sea restoration a condition of the transfer. In July of this year, IID released its own framework for restoration of the Salton Sea. But in all of this, there has been little mention of opportunities for private industry to step in with their own innovative solutions to the real and pressing problem of Salton Sea restoration. (For more on IID’s petition to the State Board, see “Imperial Irrigation District Petitions State Board for Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW January 2015. For more on IID’s Salton Sea Restoration Framework, see “Imperial Irrigation District Releases Comprehensive Framework For Salton Sea Restoration,” JOW September 2015).


Written by Marta L. Weismann