The electric vehicle is one of the most promising sustainable methods of personal transportation. But what about the batteries used to power EVs? Although the mining and manufacturing processes of electric car batteries cause far less harm to the environment than the burning of fossil fuels for similar purposes, EV batteries do require rare earth elements, metals and toxic materials that have a measurable negative impact on the environment. Once they can no longer power a car, it is important that EV batteries are not simply thrown into landfills, but rather recycled or better yet, repurposed.
Most all-electric and hybrid vehicles run on nickel-metal hydride batteries or lithium-ion batteries. Nickel-metal hydride batteries have a high recycling value because nickel is an expensive metal and can be reused in new batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are less valuable in terms of recyclable material. Various brands use different chemical compositions, and recycled lithium costs upwards of five times as much as newly mined lithium.
With limited benefits to recycling EV batteries, some proponents are looking at opportunities to reuse them, specifically on the power grid. Although no longer powerful enough to get you from point A to point B, used EV batteries still have the capability to store a significant amount of power. According to a 2014 report by the UCLA School of Law and UC Berkeley School of Law, “Assuming 50 percent of the battery packs on the road in 2014 can be repurposed, with 75 percent of their original capacity, these second-life batteries could store and dispatch up to 850 megawatt hours of electricity (one megawatt hour is roughly equivalent to the amount of electricity used by about 330 homes over one hour).”
In June, Nissan, maker of the all-electric Leaf, announced a partnership with startup Green Charge Networks, a company that uses batteries to help customers store energy when electricity is cheapest and discharge it when it is most expensive. Current clients include UPS, 7-Eleven and Walgreens. Repurposing Leaf batteries will give them a second life while saving Green Charge Networks money. GM has also announced a similar partnership with ABB and Duke Energy to reuse Chevy Volt batteries.
The University of Waterloo reports that utilizing used electric car batteries for stationary energy storage could have a significant environmental impact through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, a benefit that is not similarly realized with recycling efforts. The batteries will also make alternative energy collection more feasible since they allow for the energy to be stored during peak production periods and discharged when needed. As the United States continues to push towards sustainability, used electric car batteries will play an increasing role in how we power our lives in the home and on the go. — Kyle Napolitano, Sustainable America Intern