In this episode
Colleen and Jess discuss:
- EV battery technology
- how to determine the health of your EV battery
- options for repurposing, reusing, and recycling EV batteries once they've outlived their use in your car
Timing and cues
Interview p1 (1:53-13:49)
Interview p2 (14:42-23:00)
Segment: Cynthia DeRocco
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: What do my laptop, my phone, and my car have in common?
Well, they’re each objects I use every day. I’m totally reliant on each one of them, for different reasons. If I really needed pizza, I could use any one of them—or all three—to manifest some pizza in my life. And finally—all three of them are battery-powered and need to be recharged.
I rely on them, they rely on batteries, ergo I rely a great deal on batteries. I rely especially on the big battery that keeps my electric car running. But despite being so dependent on it, I know embarrassingly little about how that car battery works. Or what happens when it runs out of charge someday. And while I know that electric vehicles are a terrific piece of addressing the climate crisis—which is why I have one—I’m never sure what to say to folks who point out the human and environmental costs of mining for the materials for these batteries.
Luckily for me, my colleague Jessica Dunn knows a lot about all of these topics and agreed to talk to me about them. She’s a senior analyst with UCS who specializes in lithium-ion battery sustainability, and she is excited about the potential for retired electric vehicle batteries to be reused and recycled. She and I discussed the shelf life—and afterlives—of EV batteries.
Colleen: Jess, welcome to the podcast.
Jess: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Colleen: You know, I get a lot of questions about electric vehicle batteries, and many of them center around what we do with these batteries when they die. So, let's start first with a healthy battery. What am I getting when I buy a brand new EV?
Jess: Yeah. Thanks for the question. Well, you're getting a lithium-ion battery, which means basically that this is a rechargeable battery that you can use over the 10 to 15-year lifespan that a car should be lasting. And with that, you know, you're able to charge and discharge this battery. And throughout its life, that 10 to 15 years, you're retiring a battery that has 70% to 80% capacity.
Colleen: so as many of our listeners know and I’ve been curious about how I’ll know when my battery is reaching the end of its life?
Jess: That's a really good question, and something that I think has been on a lot of EV owner's mind. Well, the state of health is an indicator of how much battery, or how much energy storage the battery can hold. So, this means that, you know, when you buy a new vehicle, it can go, say, 100 miles on a charge, which is pretty low for a EV now, but just for the number's sake. And when you're gonna retire that battery, after 10 to 15 years, it should have about 70% capacity. So, we're talking, at that point, it would only have 70 miles. And that doesn't mean that you should retire it. It just means that typically, people aren't as satisfied with the amount of miles that can go on a charge. And basically, the EVs right now don't really demonstrate the battery capacity, but the miles driven, and the miles that are available on one full charge, or kind of an indicator of that.
Colleen: Right, so, this is reminding me of actually the battery on my phone. When I look, I can see...I mean, I know when I get a phone, over time, it's not gonna hold a charge as long. It sounds similar to that.
Jess: Yeah. Yeah, it's very, very similar to that. And you'll notice that the iPhones now also provide a battery capacity estimation, so they're also catching on. But at the moment, EVs don't really provide you with that capacity estimation. But it's a big barrier to having confidence in purchasing a used vehicle, or even valuing a used vehicle. So, this is something that should change in California. The Advanced Clean Cars II regulation requires that all vehicles, on their dashboard, have kind of a capacity and a state of health indicator, starting in 2026. So, this is gonna make it a lot easier for people to know the health of their battery, and also for people to have confidence in buying a used car.
Colleen: And, how will the battery state of health be determined?
Jess: So, this is a very technical process, and things such as voltage, C-rate, efficiency, and just the amount of energy that's flowing in and out, are some of the things that are calculated and used to determine this overall state of health, which is usually translated and communicated as the amount of capacity the battery has left.
Colleen: So Jess, once I've been driving my EV for, let's give it 15 years, and I'm ready to move on to my next car, what are the options for my spent EV battery?
Jess: Yeah. So, there's a couple different options. There's reuse and repurposing, which, reuse really means that the EV battery's taken out, and put into a new EV, which usually happens when a EV hasn't been on the road for as long as 15 years. So, if it failed for some other reason, early on, and there's still a very healthy battery there.
The next is repurposing. So, this is a really interesting second life usage, basically, where the batteries are taken out of the electric vehicle, they're connected to other EV batteries, and then they're used as stationary storage, and they're able to provide grid services for the next 5 to 10 years or so. And this really requires a good state of health, and a good capacity, and also requires, you know, testing to see if the battery has that available capacity. If it doesn't, or if EV batteries have already been used throughout that repurposing life stage, then they can go to recycling.
And recycling is a really efficient process. They can recover up to 95% of the materials, which is really great considering that these batteries use a lot of critical materials, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, all that have been really crucial to developing lithium-ion batteries, and also ones that have been difficult to get, and also have environmental impacts associated with their mining.
Colleen: So, I wanna go back for a sec to, you mentioned, for repurposing the batteries, that you can put multiple batteries together and use them to feed into the grid. So that means that old EV batteries can be used for powering everything from street lights to your household appliances?
Jess: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. So, there's a lot of different uses for stationary storage. Those include renewable energy support. So, say you have a field of solar, and the solar's generating during the day, midday, when energy demand might not be as high, the storage can actually store that excess energy, and then release it in the evening, when demand is higher but the sun isn't out. So, this kind of application is really crucial as we transition to a more renewable grid. And these second-life batteries can kind of replace any new batteries that would need to be manufactured.
Other applications include backup power, in case of outage. So, that's something we've really seen in California, when there's been these power shutoffs because of the risk of wildfires in the PG&E area. And another application which is really interesting is these stationary storage batteries can be used as charging stations for electric vehicles, kind of in rural areas, or in areas where the grid might not be able to support excess electricity draw.
Colleen: We ended up getting an EV because we put solar panels on our house, but at the time we didn’t get any battery storage for the panels. So, I’m curious, is it possible now or will it be in the future to use an EV battery for backup power to your house?
Jess: Yeah, the EV presents a huge opportunity for backup power now and in the future. So there are kind of two different ways the EV can provide power. One being just through outlets on the vehicle. So this isn’t try for all EVs, but the utility vehicles, such as the Ford F150 and the Rivian vehicle have 120 and 240 outlets on them, so you can plug in the essentials during an outage such as a refrigerator or something as such or you could use it as power if you’re you know going to plug in a lawn mower and use an electric lawn mower and you’re not close to your house. So, that’s one way of drawing the electricity out without using the grid. But the next is charging your full house or providing electricity to your house. So you have to have the right set up and you also have to have an electric vehicle that has bidirectional charging. So, that basically means that you can plug your vehicle in with a charger and instead of pulling the electricity form the house and into the electric vehicle you’re basically pulling the electricity out of the battery to power your house, and as I’ve said, this requires a special charger and it also requires some changes to your house, which is true if you are going to hook up a generator to your house as well. So, this is available for EVs now for some of them, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Ford F150, but it’s also something we’ll see as likely be more common in EVs in the future.
Colleen: That’s so cool. So if I have my EV configured properly, I’ll be able to use it as a backup generator in the event of a power outage.
Jess: Yeah, and it’s going to be something that will probably be pretty common for grid support as well as we transition to a higher renewable grid. So, there’s a lot of future opportunities for using EVs.
Colleen: In terms of the critical materials that we use in batteries, you were mentioning lithium, cobalt, nickel and a few others, when you recycle the battery, can those materials be reused?
Jess: Yeah. Great question. They can be reused in the manufacturing of new batteries, and that is one of the great things about recycling, and also the great thing about electric vehicles. So, you know, unlike the gasoline alternative, when you extract oil, it is, you know, burned, and then it's gone forever. With electric vehicles, you use these materials to manufacture the batteries that kind of power the electric vehicle. And then at the end of life, they can be recycled, and they can go back into that manufacturing process, into this ideal circular economy.
And what that means is that there's less materials that need to be mined, and there's a lot of environmental benefits from that, just because the recycling of materials results in such lower environmental impacts and social impacts. And so, the recovery of these materials really depends on the recycling processes that occur. So, what we're seeing right now are a lot of what we call hydrometallurgical recycling, and that recovers nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium, all in forms that can go back into cathode production.
Colleen: Is this recycling happening on a large scale yet?
Jess: Yeah, so it is. Outside the U.S., China and Europe have been big leaders of recycling, and kind of the development of the industry. In the U.S. here, we're seeing a couple companies that are actually, you know, have capacity at industrial scale. One in Nevada, that's taking in, I believe around 20,000 metric tons per year. So, there are really large-scale companies recycling at this point.
There's also a lot more under development. I think there's more under development at the moment than there are actually those recycling. And that's definitely a good sign, especially considering that we don't really have a large wave of EVs retiring at the moment. You know, there's, in, what was it, 2010, 2011 was when the first EV was sold? And so, they were proportionally very, very small compared to what was sold at this point. And you have to wait their lifespan before you can actually recycle those materials.
So, we're seeing a trickle of retirements right now, and we really expect a large wave of retirement within the next 10 years, and that's gonna mean that we're gonna need increased recycling capacity.
Colleen: So, were there incentives for battery repurposing and recycling in the Inflation Reduction Act, or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or maybe both?
Jess: Yeah. So, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law had dedicated funds for the recycling and repurposing research, development, and demonstration. And so, these funds were recently allocated to about 10 different projects, 5 of them which were specific to recycling, and the development of new technologies, with lower environmental impacts, with higher recovery rates, and also to just building up the capacity within the U.S. so that we can recycle our own batteries and we won't have to export them.
And the other five projects were specific for repurposing, and towards decreasing the costs, understanding...or, increasing the access to information about the state of health, increasing the ability to actually take the batteries apart, and also to develop a lot of these demonstration projects of a repurposing facility that can either, supply energy to the grid, or for these other applications I mentioned, such as EV charging.
So, there was $73.9 million, I believe, that was allocated to those 10 projects, and there's more to come. For the Inflation Reduction Act, that bill did not include any specifics for recycling and repurposing, but it did include, in the material requirements, there was requirements for a percentage of the materials to come from the U.S. And within that percentage, they included the ability to use materials that were recycled within the U.S. So that adds a little bit of an incentive too to use recycled materials in the manufacturing.
Colleen: And are there policies that require recycling?
Jess: No, there are no policies that require recycling in the U.S. There are recycling requirements in the European Union and in China, but the U.S. has been a bit behind in implementing anything like this. We've taken kind of a different approach, I believe, and that's more towards funding research and funding industry development, and relying more kind of on the economics of recycling, which seem to be positive at this point, just because of the high material prices for lithium-ion batteries.
At the state level, there has been more work and intrigue in including some kind of recycling policy. In California, there was an advisory group that was convened by an assembly bill in 2018. And this group was about 20 stakeholders, and they were tasked with basically developing or recommending recycling policy to the legislature. And this group included stakeholders from the auto industry, from the waste industry, from the government, and also from non-profit groups.
And what they recommended was that there be a type of producer takeback, so, it required recycling of the batteries at the end of life, but that the manufacturers of the electric vehicles should be required to ensure that the batteries are recycled, and to cover any associated costs. And this is a very representative of what's happening in the EU as well, and as well in China. So, there's a lot of interest in seeing something like that passed in California. And while there hasn't been any bill proposed, we're thinking there might be something this year.
Colleen: Are there other common-sense policies that you'd like to see put forth?
Jess: Yeah, there are. So, definitely I think some kind of producer takeback is a good kind of policy that we need to see, just so that we can ensure that all batteries are recycled, even if the economics don't work out. Batteries have been decreasing the amount of cobalt, which is a very high-value material, and so therefore, the economics don't work out as well. And we want to make sure that even if batteries, you know, aren't economical, we still recycle them, and dispose of them safely, and make sure that we recover the other materials, such as lithium.
Other policies that I think are essential to implement include design for recycling. So, this is something that we've talked a lot about in the advisory group that I mentioned before, because there's high costs with the disassembly of batteries. So, there are high costs associated with taking the battery apart into smaller modules or components. And that is because these batteries are meant to be used in an EV, and not necessarily meant to be taken apart to be repurposed or recycled.
And because of that, all the models and all the electric vehicles kind of have a different setup and design. And so, this has to be a manual process, instead of something that's done by technology or robots. And it can also be a pretty long process. You know, some batteries can take up to four hours to take apart. So, designing a battery so that it's meant to be disassembled would be a big cost saver, and would also increase the safety of this recycling and repurposing process.
So, another policy that I'd recommend is increasing availability of the state of health of information, or increasing the availability of this capacity estimate. And that is because, you know, earlier I talked about the need for knowing the state of health when the car is in use, and this is especially true for somebody who's gonna be buying or selling a used car. But it's also important to know the state of health information after the battery has been removed from the car. And that's something that's really difficult to obtain, because it's proprietary information of the OEM, the original equipment manufacturer, and there aren't really the correct connectors for a disassembler or for a repurposer to plug in and learn about the state of health and the estimate that is within the battery management system. So, this is something that could be provided by the OEM, and right now isn't, and it would be really helpful if it was. It could, you know, increase the efficiency and decrease the costs of the repurposing, and also the recycling process.
The last suggestion I have is to require some kind of labeling for batteries. So, right now, in the recycling process, it's very difficult to know what type of lithium-ion battery this is. So, the positive electrode, the cathode, this is kind of the most valuable part of the battery. It contains a lot of the critical materials, such as the lithium, the nickel, the cobalt, and there's varying levels of those.
So, recyclers, don’t, without, kind of, some kind of labeling indicating what materials are within there, they don't know how much they should be paying for the battery, or how much they should get paid for the battery, if it's a lower value battery. So, this is just an increased information and awareness that would be very essential to increasing, kind of, the efficiency of this process. And it is actually something that's gonna be required in California, starting in 2026.
Colleen: That seems like an incredibly easy and common-sense measure to put in place.
Jess: It does. And it is, yeah. It really, really is.
Colleen: Well, Jess, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast. This has been a really interesting conversation. And I'm happy to know that my battery is gonna live on and have, you know, a happy afterlife.
Jess: Yeah. Thank you for having me and asking such insightful questions.