Automakers and battery manufacturers are doing something seldom done before. They are proactively addressing how to repurpose electric and hybrid vehicle batteries once they can no longer be used for their intended purpose. This is critical as the number of electrified vehicles is growing immensely.
According to the University of Birmingham in England, the one million electric vehicles (EVs) sold globally in 2017 will generate about 250,000 metric tons of battery waste once these vehicles reach the end of their lives. As the popularity of EVs and hybrids grows, their production has outpaced the recycling of their lithium ion batteries as well.
Recycling these batteries for valuable materials like lithium, cobalt, and manganese is possible, but it isn’t easy. There is enormous variation in the chemistries, shapes, and designs of batteries used in EVs and hybrids. Battery packs must be disassembled and the various materials separated for future uses. Many battery facilities recover precious metals in spent batteries to resell these materials, while others, like the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, use these materials to build new batteries.
But the most promising way to recycle these batteries is to repurpose them, an intermediate step before used batteries are mined for their materials. Once a vehicle reaches the end of its life, the batteries often still have many years of life left. While they can no longer store sufficient electrical energy for use in vehicles, these batteries still contain more than half of their initial capacity, and can be used for a wide range of less demanding applications. Repurposing batteries does require cleanup, testing, recertification, and often repackaging. However, this is far less costly than reclaiming battery materials. The Institute for Energy Research estimates that the value of the reclaimed minerals is only about a third of the cost of reclaiming them. Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, repurposed EV power packs for applications where ultimate performance is not required could eventually cost about $49 per-kilowatt-hour compared to $300 per-kilowatt-hour for new batteries.
Used EV batteries have value far exceeding their material content. Greentec Auto, one of several companies already marketing repurposed EV batteries, quotes prices ranging from $80 for a remanufactured Nissan LEAF battery module to $1,400 for a Tesla Model S module. Marketing used batteries can add significantly to an automaker’s bottom line as well help bring down the cost of EVs.
One potentially large user of repurposed batteries is solar and wind power generation systems. When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, these batteries store electrical energy.
For instance, General Motors is using five Chevrolet Volt batteries in conjunction with a solar array and two wind turbines to power its new GM Enterprise Data Center in Milford, Michigan. The BMW Battery Storage Farm in Leipzig, Germany will use up to 700 high-capacity used battery packs from BMW i3s with a wind energy generation system. Toyota and Chubu Electric Power are building a similar large-capacity storage battery system that uses recycled batteries from Toyota EVs. This system will also handle fluctuations with renewable energy sources. Groupe Renault’s “Advanced Battery Storage” program is building a big energy stationary storage system using new and repurposed EV batteries. The system is being developed at several sites, including Renault plants in France and a former coal-fired power plant in Germany.
Repurposed batteries used with solar and wind sources could bring lower cost energy to remote locations. Renault’s “Smart Island” will use wind turbines and solar panels paired with used EV battery packs to provide totally renewable energy for the tiny Portuguese island of Porto Santo. This eliminates the need to import power or fuel from the mainland. Researchers at the University of Warwick have developed small energy storage systems with end-of-life Jaguar I-Pace batteries to be used in developing countries or isolated communities. Portable power units could also supply electricity after disasters. Startup automaker Rivian, which is building the Lincoln-Rivian electric SUV and its own all-electric pickup, is using power packs from its development vehicles in an energy storage system for Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, a city severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
As electric vehicles become more popular, charging capability will also be needed at temporary locations like music festivals. Volkswagen foresees using its spent battery packs in portable charging stations that can be taken where there isn’t an established EV charging grid. Repurposed batteries are also being used to store energy at permanent EV charging stations. EVgo, the nation’s largest fast charging network, has integrated second-life BMW i3 batteries at a charging station in Union City, CA. The batteries store energy during peak solar hours for later use during periods of high demand. EVgo plans to deploy similar systems at many of its recharging stations.
Many companies have found even more creative uses for repurposed batteries. Renault uses EV batteries for emergency power in elevators in Paris. The company has also developed the Black Swan, the first all-electric passenger boat powered by second-life batteries that allow for two hours of cruising on the River Seine. In 2015, Toyota donated 208 Camry Hybrid battery packs, used in conjunction with a solar array, to provide zero emission power to Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Buffalo Ranch Ranger Station and Education Center. It was the first reliable power source for this remote facility since it opened in 1908.
In Japan, used Toyota Prius batteries, charged by solar panels, have been installed at 7-Eleven stores to power beverage coolers and grill sausages. In England, a Nissan electric e-NV200 van-based ice cream truck uses two lithium ion power packs recovered from older Nissan EVs to power the soft-serve machine, refrigerators, and freezers. The power packs are recharged from solar panels on the van’s roof. Nissan’s “The Reborn Light” is a standalone street light powered by used Nissan Leaf battery packs and solar panels.
Finally, Alan Stokes, a professional surfer and musician, recorded his song “Howl at the Moon” in a recording studio in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides powered by a Nissan xStorage unit consisting of second-life Leaf EV batteries charged by solar panels. The recording studio itself was also repurposed: Stokes used a former shellfish processing shed.
Batteries from hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles are just becoming available, so repurposing them is still in its infancy. However, automakers, battery makers, governments, and others are already finding ways to reuse batteries from the millions of electrified vehicles that will be produced just in the next few years. Bloomberg predicts that by 2025, there will be 26 gigawatt-hours of used EV batteries available. Many of these will have second lives.