Recycling and ‘second life’ options keep retired EV batteries out of landfills

Recycling and ‘second life’ options keep retired EV batteries out of landfills

As we transition to a green economy, we’re generating waste that, if we aren’t careful, isn’t so green. We looked at barriers and opportunities around three of the most challenging types of clean energy tech waste. This is one story in that four-part series.

Read the introduction here: What happens to old EV batteries, solar panels and wind turbines?

Read part two here: Here’s what happens to solar panels when they’re retired

Read part three here: Old wind turbine blades get new spin, as businesses turn problem into opportunity

The field of solar panels dotting a stretch of desert in Lancaster looks like a typical solar farm. But the project, owned by Santa Monica-based B2U Storage Solutions, is believed to be the nation’s first to pair a solar energy system with retired EV batteries, which store the energy captured by solar panels and sell it back to the state energy grid as needed.

Batteries for EVs are the green tech waste stream that gets the most attention. But experts say they might be the least problematic, with many examples of profitable repurposing and recycling operations already established.

While EV sales hit a record high in 2023, just 1% of the nearly 300 million vehicles in the United States today are electric. And since battery warranties typically run for eight to 10 years, Slattery said there just haven’t yet been many retired batteries to grapple with.

That will change soon, though, with consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimating more than 100 million EV batteries will be retired over the next decade.

The first preference, if possible, is to find a second life for retired EV batteries.

Used batteries that came out of delivery trucks sit on the floor at ReJoule in Signal Hill, CA on Friday, January 28, 2022. ReJoule is giving electric vehicle batteries a second life by repurposing the used batteries for solar storage.Each electric truck that these batteries came out of hold 56 batteries. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

Many EV warranties kick in when a battery dips below 80% of its range capacity, according to Jessica Dunn, a senior analyst focused on transportation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. That means those batteries have lots of life left for energy storage, such as the Lancaster project. There are talks of using old batteries to charge existing EV batteries, Dunn said, or to supply electricity to grocery stores when the power goes out so they can avoid using gas-powered generators.

Reusing batteries in this way “is a relatively new concept that has yet to build a track record of performance” though, according to Jason Burwen, a vice president with Oregon-based GridStor. That’s why Burwen’s company is sticking with new batteries as it looks to develop a stationary storage facility in Santa Fe Springs.

To build confidence in second-life options for EV batteries, Meg Slattery, a PhD candidate at UC Davis who’s been studying battery recycling, said there needs to be better data sharing about the life of the equipment and tools to measure their health.

Another challenge for battery repurposing is that the price of new products is coming down so rapidly that retired EV batteries are losing their economic edge. It’s why Ryan Melsert, CEO of American Battery Technology Company, believes the future solution primarily lies in recycling.

Cobalt, nickel, lithium; all are in EV batteries and all are valuable. Some 99% of those materials are now sourced from other countries, often after environmentally damaging extraction processes. So if Melsert’s company — which has won government grants to open a recycling plant in Reno in 2026 — can recover those minerals from decommissioned EV batteries, the U.S. will be less reliant on foreign markets to make new batteries.

Melsert’s team started at Tesla, so he said they were able to deconstruct the familiar battery manufacturing process and figure out how to reclaim 80% of the materials. But because that process is so technical and so new, Melsert said there aren’t many companies doing the work yet, with no EV battery recyclers yet in California.

“There’s already more end-of-life batteries that need to be recycled than there is recycling capacity.”

There are efforts to establish battery recycling alongside lithium extraction and battery manufacturing operations near the Salton Sea. Slattery said that sort of circular system, powered by the area’s clean geothermal energy, would be an ideal solution from an emissions standpoint.

Mud pots sit in front of EnergySource’s geothermal plant near the Salton Sea in Calipatria, CA, on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

There is a push underway to stop building EV batteries with nickel and cobalt, which are some of the most valuable minerals that recyclers recover today. That could pose a challenge for recyclers down the road, which are building out their businesses using economics of today’s battery models.

But Melsert noted all EVs on the road today still contain them. So, just like the sector overall has time to prepare for the coming flood of retired EV batteries, he said there’s a solid window for recyclers to scale up, make their operations more efficient and adapt to any such changes coming down the pike.