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With lithium batteries and solar energy, how big can Nevada's energy economy get?

Andrew Woods, Jim Hodge and Dr. Simon Jowitt at KNPR.
Kristen DeSilva/KNPR

Andrew Woods, Jim Hodge and Dr. Simon Jowitt at KNPR.

In June, state officials approved a permit to mine a massive lithium deposit in Northern Nevada. It’s estimated the mine could provide one-quarter of the world’s lithium over its nearly 50-year life.

In Henderson, an 80,000-square-foot plant is dedicated to building lithium batteries. And of course, Tesla is churning out lithium batteries at its massive plant near Reno.

At the same time, Nevada is fourth in the country in solar power generation.

With lithium-based, renewable batteries a key to reducing carbon emissions, and with solar energy production, just how big might Nevada’s energy economy get?

Jim Hodge is the vice president of power sources for Henderson-based Lithion Battery, which designs and manufactures lithium-ion batteries.

He said the batteries they manufacture are mostly used in energy storage applications. Lithium batteries, or rechargeable batteries have been around for quite a while in your phone and laptops. More recently, they’ve been used in electric vehicles and energy storage.

His company is more focused on energy storage. Lithion Battery’s materials are mostly sourced from South America. They’ve been in discussions with the Rhyolite Ridge lithium mine planners, but they’ve been deciding what their plan needs to be moving forward.

Water is a big part of the discussions of proposed mines in Nevada.

Former Southern Nevada Water District lead Pat Mulroy recently told KNPR it takes 300 gallons of water to produce one cellphone battery. At the same time, states sharing the Colorado River are expected to enact strict new water conservation rules in August.

Dr. Simon Jowitt of UNLV said the currently operating lithium mine at Silver Peak is a brine operation, so their water use is relatively small. Further north in Canada, much more water is used due to the clay-rich ground.

"We're seeing this balance of climate change mitigation … the thing to think about is we need the lithium out of the ground. The thing to do is ensure the lithium is extracted in an environmentally and socially acceptable way,” Jowitt said.

Beyond water concerns, there’s also the workforce needed for such operations.

Hodge said the real challenge in Southern Nevada is the skill-operator level (machine operators, battery assemblers). "Retaining good employees over a long period has always been a challenge,” he said.

But Andrew Woods, the director of the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research, said Nevada is an ideal location for the emerging industry.

"We like to follow the money," he said. "We started seeing interest in companies coming to Nevada … 16 companies in some way involved in the lithium battery industry."

They recently released a report showing at least 30,000 workers will be needed to staff all 15 proposed or planned gigafactories in the U.S. by 2025. Woods said it’s more like 50,000.

The proposed Thacker Pass mine in Northern Nevada has been a point of contention with environmentalists and the Indigenous community.

But with traditional mining already in Nevada, Woods said it's a unique advantage to thrive in lithium mines.

“If you look at the rest of the United States, you have to go from state to state to state to get some of those parts of the ecosystem, when it's --you can literally go mine it, you can process it, you can assemble it, put it in an EV. When it's done with an EV, can go back to the recycler or get it recycled and put back in the ecosystem,” Woods said.

In the long term, is water a worry for him? Woods said of course, but if they develop water recycling systems, they can thrive and still have water we need.

“If we learn and continue to make these systems that recycle the water, so we're not such a demand on our natural resources that are here, that are very limited, then I think we can still diversify, create new jobs survive and thrive and at the same time still have the water that we need,” Woods said.

Dr. Simon Jowitt, associate professor, UNLV Department of Geoscience; Andrew Woods, director, UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research; Jim Hodge, vice president of power sources, Lithion Battery

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Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.