Recycle, Don’t Reuse, Those Valuable EV Batteries, For Now

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Up to 65 GWH of EV batteries from retired plug-in cars are expected to enter the market by 2035—and there’s a lot of money to be made from them.

For now, it looks like recycling the EV batteries makes more sense than reusing them, but that may change with innovation in reuse technologies, said Chris Robinson, research associate for Lux Research and lead author of the new report, “Reuse or Recycle: The Billion-Dollar Battery Question.”

There aren’t a lot of retired EVs now. But that will change — and EVs and their batteries are expected to be part of microgrids in the future.

Robinson said that by 2035, the high numbers of batteries from retired EVs will be worth tens of billions of dollars, so it’s important to understand how to best use those batteries. “Right now there isn’t a lot of value to these batteries,” but by 2035 “there will be billions of dollars at stake,” he said.

The automakers that manufacture the cars are expected to be responsible for ensuring batteries are reused or recycled, he said. It’s still unclear if that’s what will happen. “In Europe, there’s a directive that it’s the automakers’ responsibility.”

Automakers should prepare to both recycle and reuse the old batteries, said Robinson. “Recycling and reuse have a big impact on the value of something like an EV. It’s another revenue stream for automakers.”

The EV batteries that will need to be reused or recycled are 50 times larger than the batteries in hybrids such as the Prius, he noted.

Right now, recycling old batteries for new materials is the most cost-effective way to create value from the used batteries.

A 11.2 kWh residential battery system made from used batteries would cost about $4,600, while a new 7 kWh system would cost about $6,000. But “reduced round-trip efficiency and cycle life” make residential units a bad fit for used batteries, the report found.

The report assumes that about 80 percent of the capacity of the EV battery has been used by the time the car is retired.

Second-life batteries aren’t well suited for home use; they’re better suited to applications that require the batteries to be discharged a few times a day, said Robinson.

“The best uses are things like frequency regulation or other services for the grid,” he said. “Those are shallow, fast-responding applications.” Batteries could also be used in niche applications like back-up power for hospitals and universities. “They wouldn’t be used very often so wouldn’t get used up as quickly.”

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Meanwhile, some European manufacturers are announcing that they’re launching products from their used EV batteries.

For example, BMW plans to take the entire pack out of the i3 electric vehicle, a 22-kWh system, and prepare it for wall mounting, said Robinson. With this plan, the company doesn’t have to take out the cells or recondition the batteries, and saves money on processing.

Nissan, on the other hand, has plans to take the battery packs from the Leaf apart and convert them into two to three residential storage units. “These will have sleek exterior cases and smaller, 4-5 kWh units. Nissan will spend more money on testing and repackaging but may be capturing more value,” he said.

In addition, FreeWire Technologies repurposes used batteries from the Nissan Leaf for mobile chargers. “They reportedly pay $100 per kWh for old Nissan Leaf batteries,” he said. The Mobi Chargers can be used to charge any electric vehicle, according the FreeWire’s website.

While recycling batteries seems to be the more cost-effective option for now, certain technological advances could make re-using more cost-effective, said Robinson.

“In re-using batteries, they need to be disassembled, taken out of their packs and tested. Right now, all that is done manually,” he said. “However, if new processes are developed that allow for this work to be completed in an automated fashion, those could be valuable and could shift the value proposition and make re-using cheaper.”

For recycling, smelting is the most cost-effective option, said Robinson. “You can melt down the batteries and recover cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium.” These products can be sold to steel-making and other industries.

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