Image: Inspecting a lithium-ion battery in Michigan
Dan Irving  /  Johnson Controls via AP file
Automakers are beginning to ponder what to do with electric vehicles' lithium-ion batteries (one shown here) after the autos they power have hit the rust heap.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 9/29/2010 7:41:15 AM ET 2010-09-29T11:41:15

Unlike the small, 12-volt lead-acid battery in your current car, the lithium-ion pack that will move tomorrow’s electric vehicles may have a long life ahead of it even when the rest of the car is towed to the junkyard.

The idea of all that extra juice has automakers scrambling to find good uses for the batteries and has electrical grid operators charged up about the possibilities.

When the first high-volume battery cars, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, hit the car market later this year they’ll barely register as asterisks on the sales charts. But by mid-decade virtually every major manufacturer — along with a number of battery car wannabes such as Tesla, Fisker, Bright and Amp — expect to have dozens of models relying on lithium-ion power rolling into showrooms across the United States.

There are still plenty of skeptics who believe that demand for electrified vehicles will be limited by high costs and low range. There also are plenty of proponents who contend that by decade’s end plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, could account for anywhere from five percent to as much as 20 percent of global automotive production, accounting for as many as 16 million vehicles a year.

Which raises a fundamental question about products that are supposed to be good for the environment: what happens when those electric vehicles reach the end of their service life?

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Like the familiar lead-acid batteries that have been used in automobiles for more than a century — indeed, which powered the primitive electric vehicles of the early 20th Century — automakers expect to recycle the raw materials of a lithium-ion battery pack, but not until long after the rest of the car is on the rust heap.

“The Volt’s battery will have significant capacity to store electrical energy, even after its automotive life” ends, said Micky Bly, General Motors’ Executive Director of Electrical Systems, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles and Batteries. That presents potential opportunities, added Bly, “to provide environmental benefits that stretch far beyond the highway.”

General Motors, with its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, and Nissan, with the Leaf battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, will offer 8-year/100,000-mile warranties on the lithium-ion packs in their vehicles. But both makers believe that in the majority of instances they’ll last far longer, whether the vehicles wind up being scrapped or motorists are advised to swap out their old batteries under new federal guidelines now being finalized.

As a result, Bly estimated a typical 16 kilowatt-hour Volt battery pack will have “50 to 70 percent of its life left.”

GM has formed a new partnership with ABB Group, the world’s largest provider of electrical power grid systems, to explore the potential options of what to do with middle-aged batteries.

ABB and its utility clients are facing their own environmental challenges as regulators and consumers press the industry to expand the use of “green” renewable power sources, such as solar and wind.

The problem is that these alternatives are neither as steady nor as reliable as coal, gas or nuclear energy. A recent, unexpected lull in wind generation nearly crashed the Texas energy grid. So the industry is looking for ways to make sure it maintains a stable load at all times.

A network of battery “farms” is one possible way of addressing the challenge.

“Future smart grids will incorporate a larger proportion of renewable energy sources and will need to supply a vast e-mobility infrastructure, both of which require a wide range of energy storage solutions,” said Bazmi Husain, head of ABB’s smart grids initiative.

Traditional solutions for storing energy have been limited. One approach has been to use excess power, typically generated during off-peak hours, to pump water into a reservoir. When demand is heavy the floodgates open and the water is allowed to flow downhill, powering water turbines.

But the energy industry would like an alternative that could flex with the grid’s minute-by-minute demand.

“We are excited to explore the possibility of employing electric car batteries in a second use that could help build needed storage capacity and provide far-reaching economic and environmental benefits,” added Husain.

There could be other applications for electric-vehicle batteries after they’re taken off the road. Telecommunications companies have been exploring a variety of ways to keep cellphone towers up-and-running in a blackout, for example, including conventional battery technology and high-tech hydrogen fuel cells.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing demand for standalone generators for at-home use in the event of a black- or brown-out. Even if it were producing just half of its capacity, a Volt battery or 24 kWh Leaf lithium-ion pack would more than cover the needs of a typical American home, according to government data.

Nissan has been exploring similar options with a variety of partners of its own. The Japanese maker suggests the batteries in the Leaf could provide an added benefit even while they’re still in the vehicle.

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The chargers Nissan will use for its battery vehicles can be programmed to recognize conditions on the local electrical grid. Consumers will be able to set them, for example, to only begin charging when demand is low and a local utility offers an off-peak discount.

On the other hand, said Tom Lane, Nissan’s corporate director of product planning, the charger could be set to detect when the grid is maxing out. At that point, energy could be tapped from the Leaf battery, helping prevent an overload. Consumers would be paid a premium for that energy and the batteries would recharge, at a lower rate, when the grid gets back to normal.

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