One of the concerns about electric vehicles that I hear sometimes is the disposal of batteries. It is relatively easy to crush and recycle a vehicle with a combustion engine. Batteries are specialist, valuable, but also potentially dangerous. They need much more careful handling. As the number of electric vehicles increases, there will be a growing stack of scrapped batteries on the other side.
Most of these will eventually be recycled. Like solar panels, we’re only now seeing a steady enough supply of waste batteries to make large scale recycling economically viable. Businesses are responding, as I described with Duesenfeld in Germany and GEM in China.
At the moment, recycling EV batteries is difficult, partly because they are all different. As Duesenfeld have found, manufacturers use different casings and shapes and sizes, some of them much easier to work with than others. We might see more standardisation in future, but another trend that we can see is car manufacturers taking responsibility for end of life batteries and finding new uses for them.
This makes sense, because the demands on a battery are more intense in a vehicle. They could still have a useful life in a different context. I discovered this for myself as a child. Batteries that wouldn’t power a radio controlled car still had plenty of juice left for something less demanding, like a clock. The battery isn’t ‘dead’. It still has value and that means it’s well worth selling them on.
Here are three car companies that have been proactive about the afterlife of their batteries.
Nissan – The Nissan Leaf has been the bestselling EV so far around the world, and so there are established networks for their batteries. They sell them on to a company called Eaton, who recondition them for the domestic storage market under the Nissan xStorage brand. The UK based battery firm Powervault also use second-life Nissan batteries, as well as those from Renault EVs. Customers can choose a brand new battery or a reconditioned one as a discounted option. Domestic storage is expensive, so cheaper options make it more accessible and that is useful in itself.
Toyota – Having pioneered hybrid vehicles, Toyota have chosen to develop hydrogen-powered vehicles next rather than pure electric cars. But that still leaves them with a stock of used batteries. In Japan, they have partnered with the 7-Eleven convenience store chain to reduce emissions mutually. The chain will use hydrogen delivery trucks, and host recharging points for hydrogen and electric cars on its sites. Toyota will supply stores with reused batteries from its hybrid vehicles, which can be paired with their solar systems to make more use of the electricity they generate themselves.
BMW – The electric Mini launched in Britain this year. It is a well liked brand, and for many people it will be their first EV. The parent company has already laid the groundwork for any retired Mini batteries, along with those from other BMW cars. They will go to a firm called Off Grid Energy, who provide mobile power units to festivals and construction sites, as well as back-up power and a variety of other contexts. Some of these ex-car batteries will even be used to charge electric cars in mobile EV charging points.
There are others I could mention. Volvo delivers second-life batteries to a Swedish domestic power storage firm called Box of Energy. Nissan have developed a stand-alone off-grid streetlight that combines LED lights, a solar panel and a second-life battery. Tesla have different schemes in different places, but the batteries they use in China are designed to be used in grid-level storage after they’ve done a million miles. Reusing EV batteries for grid storage is going to be a major part of balancing the grid as we move towards 100% renewable energy.
There are problems associated with electric vehicles. As long as electric car companies operate with circular economy principles in mind, battery waste doesn’t need to be one of them.