Mr. Green Car: Recycling electric vehicle batteries

November 28, 2012

Lithium-ion battery pack of a Chevy Volt. (Photo courtesy of General Motors Corporation)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

As we move ever closer to going mainstream with electric vehicles (EV), there are already concerns arising over what becomes of the batteries when the time comes to replace them. The summer 2012 edition of Green Car Journal has an article about the topic written by Bill Siuru. I’d like to share it with you (following in italics) since I don’t think I can reword it to provide a clearer picture of what the potential is for these batteries after they have passed the point of being useful in a car.

Repurposing spent electric car batteries is a smart move that can keep them out of the waste stream and provide value to seemingly useless products. This line of thought is gaining believers because it addresses both environmental and economic challenges.

One of the major hurdles holding back the widespread popularity of electric vehicles is their battery cost. The retail price of EVs could be cut drastically if batteries retained a high residual value after they could no longer power electric vehicles, especially if EV batteries were leased separately rather than sold with an electric car.

Actually, EV batteries should retain high residual values. On average, electric car batteries that cannot hold sufficient charge for motive use can still retain as much as 70 percent of their energy storage capacity, even after eight to 10 years of use powering a car. Several projects are now under way aimed at establishing a secondary battery market for these spent batteries.

Since most EV battery packs are modular, individual modules could be reconfigured for other applications like powering electric bikes. The most promising application is to integrate several into a “grid energy storage box” to provide temporary power during a utility outage, or to handle peak grid demands.

Nissan North America, working with power-transmission equipment manufacturer, ABB, Sumitomo Corp. of America, and 4R Energy Corporation, is looking at using spent lithium-ion batteries such as those used in the Nissan LEAF. The goal is to use these batteries for energy storage by utility companies and as community power sources. A 50 kilowatt-hour battery storage prototype now under development could power 15 homes for two hours. Nissan already sells a system in Japan that enables the LEAF to serve as a back up electricity storage system for homes.

General Motors, also working with ABB, is investigating applications for the 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack used in the Chevrolet Volt. Again, the emphasis is on using recycled batteries for electrical grid storage and grid load leveling, including use with intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

In yet another example, Duke Energy is working with ITOCHU Corp. in finding second-life applications for lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries. Duke Energy has a fleet of 80 Think City plug-ins [small EVs] with lithium-ion batteries, so a ready-made supply will be available some years down the road.

To sum up what Siuru reports — we won’t be throwing lithium-ion batteries into the landfill. They will be valuable for use in other products, finding a “second life.” That is good news.

Other good news is that the Freedom Field’s big solar field is now in place at the Chicago Rockford International Airport. I don’t know that it is operational yet, but if you wish to see it, the field is visible from Beltline Road south of the airport (west of road, south of Kishwaukee River) and also from South Bend Road near Kilbuck Bluffs Forest Preserve.

Although I am an enthusiastic proponent of solar power, I am not keen on covering good farmland with solar panels and disturbing natural areas for the sake of generating electricity. I hope in the future we can see the wisdom of placing these facilities on the roofs and parking lots of abandoned factories. These are places with heavy-duty electrical infrastructure already in place — that should reduce the cost and speed up the installation of industrial-scale solar power.

This is another way to repurpose something that’s worn out. Freedom Field has a great start, now to green it up even more.

From the Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2012, issue

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