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Lithium, solar, cleantech projects taking shape in rural Northern NV

Michelle Cook and Ashley Maden

Nevada News Group

From left, Con Edison Development Senior Manager Lisa Briggs; Loon, LLC Program Manager Jeff Neri; and Lithium Nevada Corporation CEO Alexi Zawadzki speak at the Jan. 30 Winnemucca Futures forum.
Photo: Ashley Maden / The Humboldt Sun

EDITOR’S NOTE

The annual Winnemucca Futures economic development forum took place Jan. 30 in Winnemucca, featuring Humboldt County’s industry and government leaders. This story is among several published this month by The Humboldt Sun, a sister publication of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly, in coverage of the 2020 event. Go to nevadanewsgroup.com to read more.

WINNEMUCCA, Nev. — Winnemucca Futures 2020 brought together a panel of speakers addressing the future of clean technology and renewable energy in Humboldt County and beyond.

Lisa Briggs, Government Affairs Manager for Con Edison Development Division; Jeff Neri, Program Manager for Loon, LLC; and Alexi Zawadzki, CEO of Lithium Nevada, all brought to the discussion a perspective of growth and sustainability.

Briggs kicked off the discussion with an announcement that Con Edison Development, a division of Con Edison, plans to break ground in the coming months on a solar-generating operation near the tiny community of Valmy in Humboldt County.

“We’re getting ready to build our very first in Northern Nevada,” she said.

The Battle Mountain Solar Project would generate 100 megawatts and store energy in a group of 25 megawatt batteries. Briggs said Con Edison expects to start construction in the second quarter of this year and be fully operation in July 2021. The project will likely generate about 300 jobs at peak construction, and then three to five permanent jobs.

“This is a $120 million capital investment and we’re excited to be here,” she said, adding that Con Edison is required to hire at least 50 percent of its workforce from Nevada.

Neri talked about Loon’s lofty goal of providing internet access to rural and remote areas. The company uses high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere at an altitude of 18 km (11 mi) to 25 km (16 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds.

“We’ve been doing this for seven or eight years,” Neri said. “We came up to Winnemucca because Winnemucca is a really friendly place to launch balloons.”

Loon is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, the parent company of Google. Loon recently finished construction of a 1.5-million-pound vertical launch facility in Winnemucca.

Neri discussed the company’s preference for hiring local talent, saying “we’re way better off finding local people” because they don’t need to learn the local culture and traditions.

Neri didn’t discuss what Loon’s future workforce needs might be, but the company announced in November 2019 it had signed a deal with “Internet Para Todos” to bring balloon-powered internet to the Amazon rainforest region in Peru sometime this year.

Lithium Nevada’s Zawadzki, meanwhile, discussed the company’s upcoming $1.3 billion Thacker Pass lithium claystone project and how it fits into the future of the lithium industry in Northern Nevada.

Zawadzki said with the worldwide lithium industry growing at 15% per year, demand is high for the chemical element. He added that there are other factors involved in developing the Thacker Pass site — mainly, most lithium flows through China, which presents vulnerabilities to the U.S. economy and U.S. security. 

In response to reducing U.S. dependence on foreign minerals, President Trump in late 2017 signed Executive Order 13817. The U.S. Department of the Interior published a list of 35 mineral commodities considered critical to the economic and national security of America, and lithium is on that list.

“Developing this site will allow us to supply lithium for the U.S. for decades to come. It’s a very strategic asset,” he said, noting that with the Tesla Gigafactory’s location in nearby Storey County, one of Lithium Nevada’s top goals is to be the lead provider of lithium hydroxide that the  “cornerstone” company needs to produce batteries for its cars.

Jobs associated with mining and manufacturing the lithium hydroxide are expected to be very high paying. Zawadzki added.

According to previous reports, the company projects Thacker Pass operations will create approximately 1,000 jobs during construction and will employ more than 285 people upon completion. Currently, the project is in the permitting phase; initial construction is slated for the first quarter of 2021.

In preparation, the company is working with local communities to begin training programs this year “to make sure that workforce is there,” Zawadzki said.

Of note, capital for the project is $500 million for phase one, and Lithium Nevada owns 100% of the asset right now. The company continues to look for partnerships to finance the entire project.