A Sustainable Second Life for Electric Vehicle Batteries

electric car 2010The growing buzz around electric vehicles has some saying they will be the next great product migration in the automobile market. To date, one of the largest impasses for the fledgling technology is the batteries and their expense. Advanced battery systems, like lithium-ion, required for larger capacities and quicker recharging times are the high cost element for these new cars.  But some car companies are now exploring a way to help offset those costs and materials by trying to survey out a second life for these batteries after they leave cars to serve as renewable power storage. Before electric vehicles have even hit the production lines their lifecycle costs could be drastically reduced by capitalizing on interconnections with other sustainable industries.

Electric vehicles (EVs) bring a ray of hope and excitement to prospective users with the prospect of quiet, emission-free driving that would slash our country’s fuel consumption as well as the energy we use to turn oil into gasoline. However, despite the benefits of electronic vehicles (EVs) their model is not without their share of setbacks that have left their future relatively unclear. Tentative plans of companies like GM and Nissan that could create a new connection between the car industry and renewable energy may not only add strength to EV viability, but address two of the industries greatest perceived flaws: what to do with the batteries after cars and where the power for them actually comes from.

An article in the UK Times touches on how battery production has weighed down prospects of EVs in their pre-market debuts. Their principal material (lithium) is not incredibly costly to mine but the price increases by 1000% for its raw, manufactured form. Lithium is also only available in limited known supply around the world–Chile happens to be a hot spot. The result is that new batteries end up comprising a huge percentage of the sticker price for new EVs. While the auto companies are collectively keeping the pricing of their battery systems quiet, according to an article on hybridcars.com, one EV startup in California claims the cost is upwards of $1,000/kwh (a Nissan Leaf has a 24 kwh battery!)

Estimates in vehicles prices have seen these costs naturally passed onto customers to make EVs just as expensive—if not more expensive—than comparable gas vehicles or hybrids. But an afterlife for batteries that paid dividends could put a dent in those high costs for producers and consumers alike. Apparently, when batteries degrade from levels necessary for driving they still hold large amounts of charging capacity (perhaps as high as 75%)—a commodity that could be captured by another industry. Realizing an after-market value of batteries could shift some of that excess cost away from customers into other willing buyers at wind or solar farms. According to GM, the situation is a triple-win because although deconstructing the batteries to safely harvest their components is possible, it is expected to be intensive in both labor and capital.

Car Battery Graph

Critics of EVs have also pointed to the power source for a new fleet of cars that tap their energy from our existing grid. Their contention is that we are not really lowering emissions if we eliminate oil production only to draw power from a system that has the majority of its energy produced from coal. Despite the fact that oil drilling, transportation and refining all require addition energy and environmental degradation, these concerns are still valid. The cleaner our grid becomes the more sense it makes for it to be powering our transportation and an evolution to a smart grid could mean residents are charging their cars at night when power is cheaper.

At the same time, renewable power has its own drawback, namely its intermittent nature. Wind turbines and solar farms can provide power that is clean but often unreliable. The result is needing large amounts of dirtier power kept in the grid spinning reserve (plants that are running but not producing electrons for the grid) meaning that the net benefit of the greener installations is marginal. When paired with power storage, however, renewable energy advances quickly against into the marketplace. Power storage systems made up of recycled EV batteries could help the output of renewable systems remain more consistent allowing for more grid systems to be powered down. The UK Times reports that 25 recycled car batteries could store up to 1 MW of power and yet may be an incremental additional cost added to a wind turbine. If renewable energy could pair usefulness with its inherent cleanliness then its critics would continue to dwindle. Polling shows that most Americans already support the construction of renewable energy on public lands.

Electric Car 2010

The new Nissan Leaf

A high school student recently asked me, “When in the design process should architects and engineers start working together on sustainable solutions for a new building?” My answer was “From the very beginning.” As our society’s knowledge and understanding of sustainability grows we can greater appreciate it’s role as an integrated mentality rather than a technological add-on. This goes far beyond just designing greener buildings. As new demands and goals for efficiency and environmental response will continue to spawn new products and processes, planning for sustainable products should begin on the first day of design meetings when concepts and constructions are pliable.

The fact that these opportunities are being explored before electric cars and their batteries are even in full production is part of why it stands a better chance of being successful. As of now, the system is not cast, painted and polished, allowing for flexibility. In this case, it means the priming of this secondary marketplace to help offset the larger costs of batteries. When people talk about a more sustainable economy, it is these kinds of breakthroughs (perhaps more important than the electric cars themselves) that make goals for sustainability plausible. Realigning the value of our streams of resources that we now consider as “waste” is a major component of achieving greater efficiency and making sustainability more easily accepted. By interconnecting material and use patterns we can essentially design our waste streams out of existence. Our cities and towns can become industrial ecologies.

What struck me is the elevated level of planning displayed by car companies. The automotive industry, especially the factions housed in the United States, are notorious for their unsustainable, inorganic business models. On the contrary, this direction unearths relationships that resemble the natural overlaps and interconnecting components of natural ecosystems—which I believe explain their attractiveness. A link between electric vehicles and renewable power could ultimately make each industry more affordable and viable.

Photo Credit: theautochannel.com, UK Times,