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From adopting better battery recycling practices to extending EV batteries into second life and embracing other battery applications, EVs can go one step further in creating a closed-loop system.
Here’s a scary thought: by 2030, our global population is expected to reach 9 billion and we are already using more resources than our planet can provide. We need to rapidly innovate and implement sustainable practices to protect our environment while building social and economic capital. As we move from our take, make, and waste linear economy and shift towards a more sustainable way of designing, making, reusing, and recycling materials within our planetary limits, we start to embrace a circular economy.
Electrifying transportation is part of the environmental regeneration equation and a significant player in net zero emissions targets. By eliminating the burning of fossil fuels that are contributing to air pollution and climate change, we are already seeing the positive impacts that electric vehicles have on reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
That said, there are still many ways that EVs can be optimized to contribute to a circular economy. From adopting better battery recycling practices to actually extending EV batteries into second life and embracing other battery applications, EVs can go one step further in creating a closed-loop system.
With their high energy per unit, low weight, efficiencies, and ability to perform in high temperatures, lithium-ion batteries are in most of today’s electric vehicles. Right now, the quantity of end of first life EV batteries is low, but in the near future there will be a plethora. Analysts suggest that China is already generating 500,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries and predict that that number will reach 2 million per year by 2030. Many manufacturers have about a 5year warranty on these batteries, but come the decade mark, the vehicle’s battery will likely need to be replaced.
This begs the question: where do the old batteries go?
While most components of lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, little recycling is taking place today. Analysts say that in Australia, only 2-3%of batteries are recycled and only 5% in America and Europe. The hard truth is that most of these batteries end up in landfills. It’s the easier option since recycling these large batteries requires dismantling, plus the batteries need to be handled carefully due to their hazardous or potentially explosive nature.
But recycling is a challenge to be seized. Not only does recycling lithium ion batteries reduce landfill waste, but old batteries’ non-renewable materials can be recovered and used to make new batteries. The reality is that EV battery recycling needs to be governed to create mandated, proactive practices to benefit the circular economy - unless manufacturers can find other applications for these batteries first.
Another alternative for end of first life EV batteries is extending the batteries into second life. When these batteries are replaced in an EV, the initial battery isn’t dead — in fact, it’s estimated that about 70-80% of its charging capacity can be retained. With a number of second life battery use cases across residential, commercial, grid energy storage, and even in other electric vehicles, second life battery adoption is a sustainable practice — perhaps even more beneficial than recycling. Just look at David Elderton: he’s using a former Tesla Model S battery to power his home, charged by solar power.
The second life energy market has economics behind it, too. According to McKinsey, second life battery supply could exceed 200 gigawatt-hours per year by 2030, creating a global value of over $30 billion.
Of course, like recycling, second life battery applications have their challenges to overcome. Safe and cost-effective methods for extending batteries into second life are still in early innings. Batteries must be easily removable from the car. And, the second life battery industry will also likely require some regulation for liability, assessing, and testing purposes.
While the batteries in electric vehicles are certainly the most opportunistic, reusable car part, just like ICEs, there are several car parts that can be recycled or reclaimed. Right now, electric vehicles are in their infancy. But as newer models continue to hit the market with increased performance or better utility value, an old EV will be exactly that - an old EV.
Any junkyard right now will take an ICE vehicle and dismantle it to sell reusable car parts (seats, mirrors, lights) or recycle materials (tires, windows, carpets). The same will be true for electric vehicles. One interesting reusable EV part will be its motor. Motors are straightforward and reliable machinery that are built to go a million miles. It will be interesting to see what other applications motors use in the future, from modifying classic cars to marine use cases. Solar-powered pontoon party boat, anyone?
Moving away from the linear economy and embarking on the circular economy tightens the loop, and enables our world to reuse, repair, and revitalize materials to retain their functional value. Electrifying transportation is a step in the right direction towards a circular economy and key in eliminating fossil fuel usage and reducing air pollution. But we can go further in our sustainability practices by mandating EV battery recycling programs and extending EV batteries into second life. By leveraging the significant amount of energy that remains in an EV battery at the end of its first life, we can create reusable practices and find other ways to improve self-consumption across our lives.
Exro’s Battery Control System (BCS) can expand the capabilities of batteries and create second life energy storage. Learn more about how the BSC enables greater depth of control on the cells to extend battery life, increase reliability, and reduce total costs.