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ELECTRIC VEHICLE BATTERIES What happens to electric car batteries after they’re used?

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Florian Richert

As the most critical part of an electric car, vehicle batteries are guaranteed to last at least 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers) on average before they no longer hold enough of a charge and have to be replaced. Here’s what happens to many of them.

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Batteries inside a cutaway of a Nissan Leaf EV.
Batteries inside a cutaway of a Nissan Leaf EV.
(Source: / CC BY NaN)

When consumers decide to buy an electric vehicle (EV), they’re often curious about how long the batteries inside the car are meant to last. Cellphone batteries, as an example, might be reliable for at least 500 charge cycles (instances of the battery being fully charged and subsequently depleted through use to 0% of their capacity). After 500 full cycles, a cellphone battery can begin to lose a significant portion of its charging capacity.

A long first life

By contrast, EV batteries are designed to last much longer; instead of following the cellphone example, EV batteries are “buffered,” meaning that drivers can’t deplete their charge to 0%, reducing the number of complete cycles each battery goes through. In fact, EV batteries are designed with spare capacity in mind to compensate for degradation in performance. EV batteries also have specially designed cooling systems, which help to extend their lives. These factors allow the range of EVs to stay consistent over time, despite years of constant battery use.
On average, many EV makers guarantee their batteries for cars will last at least eight years or 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers), whichever comes first (for buses and taxis, battery lifetimes may be half this amount). Drivers will often notice that once their batteries’ capacity falls below 80%, degradation of performance usually becomes apparent.
At this point, most EV batteries still retain between 50% to 70% of their original storage capacity. For most EVs, the batteries can be replaced, typically at a steep price (usually more than USD5,000)—although it’s worth noting that the cost of EV battery packs has fallen by 89% between 2010 and 2020. Currently, automobiles have overtaken personal electronics as the biggest consumers of lithium-ion batteries, according to energy consulting firm Avicenne Energy.

Second life

But what happens to EV batteries after they’re used?
Just because the batteries won’t hold enough of a charge to power an EV doesn’t mean they’re useless. “A lithium-ion battery actually never dies,” explains Hans Eric Melin, the founder of London-based Circular Energy Storage Research and Consulting. “It’s just like you can take an alkaline battery out of your flashlight and put it into a remote control, and it’ll still be good enough.”
Most EV batteries can be used for up to 10 more years after they come out of a vehicle. This is fortunate as it’s estimated that by 2025, there will be 3.4 million battery packs that will have been pulled out of cars. By 2030, research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates the demand for batteries will be 25 times what it was in 2018. By 2040, more than half of all new cars and a third of vehicles on the roads—some 559 million automobiles—will be electric. According to BNEF, by 2050, companies will have invested roughly USD550 billion in home, industrial, and grid-scale battery storage.

An aftermarket is forming

“The car manufacturers have an upcoming problem—one that we’re already starting to see: this massive volume of batteries,” explains Johan Stjernberg, CEO of Box of Energy AB, a Swedish company working with automakers Volvo and Porsche. “The market will be enormous for second-life applications with storage.”
Different countries have varying regulations for used EV batteries. In China, EV producers are now responsible to keep used batteries from their vehicles out of landfills. In the European Union, similar regulations have been proposed, and it’s expected the U.S. will follow suit, too.
Carmakers such as General Motors, BMW, Toyota, and BYD are trying to create an aftermarket for batteries that will give these firms a new revenue stream and a chance to profit further from a component that’s already been produced and sold once. In some cases, battery makers such as China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Limited (CATL) will have control over such aftermarkets. It’s projected that China will dominate this arena by 2025, with at least 12 gigawatt-hours of second-life battery capacity available.
“The logic behind this is the circular economy,” says Cecile Sobole, a program manager for Renault’s EV business. “The battery coming from the electric vehicle will become more and more a part of the energy world.”

Repurposing

In some cases, EV batteries are now being repurposed to power buildings and homes. In other cases, they’re being used to collect energy from wind turbines and solar panels. Renault is using EV batteries for elevator backup power in buildings in Paris. The company has also said that batteries from its Zoe EVs will be repurposed and used by Powervault, a UK-based maker of home-energy battery storage systems.
London homeowner Jeff Hardy has installed a Powervault unit in his Victorian terrace house, and he says he expects to save GBP110 per year. “It can basically supplement my solar [power] and allow me to do more for free,” notes Hardy, an energy-sector academic and consultant. “The manufacturing of EV batteries does have an impact on the environment. The fact that this is a reused product means that it’s really reducing that footprint.”
In Amsterdam, Nissan plans to use old EV batteries to provide backup power to the city’s Amsterdam Arena sports and entertainment venue. In Japan, the automaker is working with Sumitomo to use EV batteries for street lighting in the coastal municipality of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture (the town had suffered greatly from the 2011 nuclear plant catastrophe nearby) and for large-scale power storage elsewhere.
Throughout Japan, Toyota wants to use old EV batteries to store electricity generated by solar panels on the roofs of 7-Eleven convenience stores. The collected energy will then be used to run refrigerators, food warmers, and fresh food counters inside the stores.
In the United States, GM’s Chevrolet brand is using former EV batteries to drive a data center in Michigan, while BMW and BYD are repurposing EV batteries for energy storage projects in Leipzig, Germany and Shenzhen, China, respectively (electricity can be taken from the grid when prices are low and used later when power prices are higher).

The final step: recycling

Eventually, however, all EV batteries reach the final end of their working life, and at this point, they typically get recycled. This involves separating the material components of the battery (lithium and cobalt salts, copper, steel, aluminum, and plastic) and saving the materials that qualify for future use. Currently, roughly half of the materials inside the battery are actually reused, but battery and car manufacturers are looking to improve on this; in fact, Volkswagen recently announced it will be building a plant that will set a target goal of 97% recycling for EV battery components. VW will accomplish this by shredding, drying, and filtering most of the battery materials to make into new batteries. If this process becomes profitable enough, some carmakers may skip the repurposing efforts outlined above to focus on recycling exclusively.

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