While HybridCars.com or Green Car Reports may be some of the more obvious media outlets that cover electric vehicle news, Forbes provides great insight on topics related to energy, sustainability, and (yes, you guessed it) electric vehicles. A recent Forbes editorial article discussed the issue of what is to be done with valuable lithium-ion batteries after they are removed from EVs that have reached their lifespans and are taken off the road. As noted in a previous post on this blog, lithium-ion batteries are very valuable and make up roughly one third of a new EV’s cost, so reusing them may prove to be a lucrative venture.
For the most part, the Forbes article is a look into what “could be”, detailing the possibilities of how lithium-ion batteries may be repurposed, since they are still a relatively new technology. In fact the EVs that use these large lithium-ion batteries have only really been on the market since the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF were introduced in late 2010.
One of two uses of these used batteries that the author highlights is to support the ability of small-scale solar energy users to go off the grid completely. Since solar panels can only produce electricity during the day, homes that use them still need to be “grid-tied” and have a source of electricity at all times. Therefore, most solar panels actually feed electricity into the grid, so that their owners simply get credits or payments from the utility company for their contribution. This method works perfectly fine for homes near the grid, since the electricity bill is lowered by utility credits and the production of environmentally friendly, renewable energy is not hampered. But what if you want to power a home in a remote, rural location with solar energy? What if there is not electrical grid to keep the power steady?
As the Forbes article points out, the average American home uses roughly the same amount of energy each day that can be stored in the battery of an average all-electric car, such as a Nissan LEAF. Therefore, a used EV battery could easily store enough electricity produced from a home’s solar panels during the day and release it at night and in the morning, when the solar panels are not active. This dynamic could enable solar energy, or any other renewable energy for that matter, to be a truly sustainable, clean source of power.
A second possible use for repurposed EV batteries is the stabilization of large, utility-scale renewable energy production. Since the current electrical grid has been developed around fossil fuel energy production, which is very predictable and easy to control, the variations in energy production from renewable sources such as wind and solar can put significant stress on the grid. Therefore, many renewable energy producers are taxed or fined for grid schedule “deviations”, whether they produce less or more power than what is needed by the utility. In fact, it is not uncommon for renewable energy facilities to shut down, so that they don’t produce too much electricity, which is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Used EV batteries could easily solve this problem by storing excess energy during peak electricity production and releasing it when production is too low.
Think of a wind farm in Texas, for example. When the wind is very strong at night and electricity demand is low, batteries can store all the clean renewable energy and release it during the day when air conditioners, computers, and all sorts of electronics need power but the wind is not as strong. Not only would the batteries help a wind farm meet peoples’ energy needs, but it would also save the wind farm owner from having to pay deviation fines, improve the overall economics and return on investment of the wind farm, and lower electricity prices for consumers.
These possibilities for repurposing EV batteries are not just a novel idea. They are being implemented and tested. In fact, the Forbes article talks about a project in Japan, where a 400 kilowatt-hour array of used EV batteries is being charged by a solar farm and will be studied for three years. Cleantechnica has also reported on this effort in Japan, as well as the efforts of automakers like BMW, Ford, and General Motors to study the feasibility and effectiveness of combining electricity storage from used EV batteries with electricity production.
Ultimately, as more and more EVs hit the roads and the demand for renewable energy grows, there will be a very compelling case for repurposing EV batteries once the vehicles reach their lifespan. The problem of what to do with these used lithium-ion battery may prove not to be a problem at all, but rather, an opportunity and quite possibly a booming industry.