BORON, Calif. (KGET) — To many, the man-made depression in a certain eastern Kern County hillside might look like a giant hole in the ground – and it is California’s largest open pit mine – but it is more accurately the world’s energy future.

While Kern County’s battle with inevitability continues in the halls of the state legislature and the hedgerows of oilfield pump jacks, the trek toward a prosperous and meaningful future moves forward  – and in some of the unlikeliest of places. 

This is Boron, population 2,000 and change – an Old West relic of a town smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It is here that the world’s energy needs for the coming century are being mined, one two-and-a-half story, 180-ton dump truck at a time.

This is the U,S. Borax mine in eastern Kern County, two miles long, 1.7 miles wide – a place people over the age of 60 might associate with 20 mule teams and the 1960s TV series Death Valley Days. And Rio Tinto, the multinational mining company that owns U.S. Borax, doesn’t shy away from that nostalgia.

Hence Friday’s 150-year birthday party for the company. The usual assortment of politicians and politicians’ representatives were there with proclamations but the star of the show was Mule Number 1 – the company’s longest serving current employee, Ronald Roquemore, who started in 1968.

What was the town of Boron like in 1968, Ron?

“Pretty much the same,” Roquemore conceded after a jokingly bewildered pause.

But the mission of the company he’s worked for for nearly 54 years is not. Once the candles were out, this party was largely focused on a secondary product mined from this desolate hillside – not versatile, reliable Borax, used in everything from laundry soap to camera lenses – but lithium.

Rio Tinto discovered a quantity of lithium in its Borax waste stream – a mineral essential in the manufacture of batteries, among other things. 

Marnie Finlayson, Rio Tinto’s managing director of battery materials, said company engineers made the discovery.

“Our fantastic engineers on site recognized that we had lithium in our waste stream and said, “We’re not throwing that away,'” said Finlayson, who is based in her native Perth, Australia. “So why wouldn’t we look to extract that? And feed that into this very important supply chain, which is electrification of vehicles.”

And as California and the world attempt to move away from fossil fuels, lithium becomes more like another Rio Tinto product – gold – in terms of potential value.  Simone Hensher, Rio Tinto’s lithium engineering manager, said the company is proud to be part of the energy production cycle.

“We understand the importance of us extracting this mineral in the United States,” said Hensher, who is from Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. “The government has been focusing on the charging stations and battery manufacturing and this is just another key component of that entire cycle.”

Spot prices for battery-grade lithium in China — where 75 percent of all battery-making capacity is located — soared to more than $50,000 per metric ton last month, compared with $11,000 this time last year. That’s an all-time high for the metal used to make the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs, smartphones, and other products. So, even in the moderate amounts found in Boron, mining it becomes increasingly logical.

Renny Dillinger, interim general manager of the Borax plant, said lithium mining will keep the mine going another 150 years.

“As the demand for electric vehicles has increased, as the demand for batteries for power production and storage has increased” he said, “we really see that the demand is outpacing supply in the market, which presents us and others with tremendous opportunities.”

If it strikes you that China’s head start on lithium production is potentially problematic, you’re not alone. We can draw two conclusions from this.

One, the U.S. had better start mining more lithium – something Tesla mogul Elon Musk long ago concluded – or this country could find itself relying on foreign producers. Two, Boron’s wealth of lithium is good news for Kern County – which has been dealing with energy challenges on another front and could use some good news.

When people think of the U.S. Borax mine in Boron, they often think of the Old West, They think of the 1800s. Maybe it’s time to start thinking of this as a place that leads us to the future.