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Life after life: A second chance for EV batteries

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The market for electric vehicles (EVs) has exploded in recent years, propelled by advances in battery technology, government incentives and falling costs. Industry analysts predict that by 2030, there will be as many as 145 million EVs on the road worldwide, up from 11 million in 2020. Despite higher up-front costs, EVs are cheaper to fuel and maintain than conventional vehicles and, depending on where the electricity is sourced, generate significantly lower emissions even when accounting for the carbon footprint from manufacturing. In short – they’re better for the environment, and options available to consumers are only likely to expand in coming years.

The problem lies in the batteries.

EV battery production relies on the availability of raw materials like lithium and cobalt. Extraction of these metals has devastating consequences, both for the environment and human welfare. Much of the world’s lithium is sourced from the Andes, which requires the use of so much groundwater that it reduces the amount of water available to Indigenous farmers and herders. Cobalt production, the majority of which takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, exposes local populations to hazardous waste materials, leeches pollutants into the environment, and is notorious for its use of child labor.

Recycling these batteries may appear to be the obvious solution to this problem, but logistics present a significant challenge. Extracting battery materials requires the use of dedicated facilities that process batteries with heat and chemicals. The size and weight of most EV batteries means that almost half of recycling costs come from transportation alone. The end result is a process so expensive that the vast majority of battery materials cannot be reclaimed at a profit, so most recyclers don’t bother. This may change as technology marches on (researchers predict that within a few decades, half of the lithium, cobalt and nickel in batteries could be sourced from recycled materials), but until then, responsible management of end-of-life batteries will be necessary to maximize battery lifespan and reduce their overall environmental footprint.

Once an EV battery is no longer roadworthy, it still has around 70% of its original capacity left. Repurposing these batteries for stationary energy storage could theoretically more than double global energy storage capacity. Not only would this make the grid more capable of handling fluctuations in power supply and demand, it’s also a critical step in helping us transition to clean energy. While the economics of this venture remain uncertain, some intrepid researchers, like Chris Mi and Kevin Wood from San Diego University, have plans to incorporate second-life EV batteries into commercial-scale power grid systems. To maximize storage lifespan, the team has also developed a communications framework to monitor the health of each battery. In addition to bolstering the reliability of California’s grid, the project is expected to save households and companies an estimated 30% on energy costs once operational.

They aren’t the only ones taking advantage of this opportunity. For over a year now, B2U Storage Solutions has used second-life EV batteries to store solar power and discharge it in the evening, when demand is highest – at a profit. Car manufacturers such as Nissan, BMW and Audi have also deployed their used batteries in large-scale energy storage systems, while others have even begun to design their batteries with reuse in mind.

Second-life battery endeavors still face a number of challenges. For one, financial benefits are hamstrung by small margins and lengthy payback periods. And because the market is so young, there exists a great deal of uncertainty about how to source batteries. But the potential is tremendous. A study by McKinsey & Company reports that under the right conditions, second-life batteries could offer a 30%-70% economic advantage over new batteries. Advances in this technology won’t just lower your energy bills; they’ll also mean more stable grids, cleaner energy, and fewer outages.

With car manufacturers and state and national governments pledging to phase out combustion engines in the coming decades, we can expect to see more and more EVs on our roads. One thing’s for sure – that’s a whole lot of batteries. Let’s not let them go to waste.

 

Image: Matis75 via Shutterstock