“Green” cars have one major drawback: batteries. Electric cars use large batteries to store the energy they need to run. The batteries can last between 2 and 11 years depending on the make of the car, and then the car owner will no longer have any use for them.
Most batteries contain toxic metals, are quite heavy, and are too expensive to recycle. (But don’t worry—electric car batteries will have accumulated enough energy to power a house for about 15 years or more!)
Electric cars may be getting all the press these days, but the truth is that we’ve been trying to switch to an all-electric vehicle fleet for more than a century. But even then, we had electric car batteries on the brain. Take the battery for the EV-1, for example.
Though it made up a third of the car’s weight, the EV-1’s battery actually had a pretty long life – from its first production in 1996 until its final day on the road in August of 2006, the batteries had only lost a third of their charge, Nissan says.
The Role of Batteries in Electric Vehicle Emissions
The electric vehicle industry is still in its infancy, but it’s growing fast. Right now, people are shifting from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles. As this transition continues, there’s a lot of talk about how electric vehicles will help fight climate change and reduce emissions.
In fact, many governments even give generous tax breaks to people who buy electric vehicles. However, it’s important to remember that electric vehicles aren’t necessarily emission-free. In fact, some recent studies have suggested that the equivalent carbon emissions from electric vehicles depend on how electric power is generated (i.e., where the electricity comes from).
Batteries are a key component of electric vehicles because they are essential for storing the large amounts of electricity that power them. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is very optimistic about the environmental benefits of electric vehicles (or EVs), some skeptics believe that the power still has to come from somewhere, and that means a conventional source like a coal-fired power plant.
However, whether power comes from a coal plant or a solar panel, battery storage plays the same role, and according to a new study, the emissions from batteries may actually be lower than that of coal-fired power plants.
Public Policy for Responsible Battery Management
In the United States, an estimated 2 billion cell phones are in use and, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each one contains an average of 3.5 milligrams of mercury (about 4% of the toxic element’s total supply in the United States).
Mercury is a substance with toxicity that is considered very damaging to the environment, and the EPA recommends limiting exposure to it. When a cell phone is being used, the battery is causing the element to be released into the air and eventually the ground, water, and soil.
The long-term effect of this is difficult to determine, but it is estimated that there are nearly 6,500 metric tons of mercury contained in landfills in the United States.
As the number of battery-operated devices we use on a daily basis is ever-increasing, so is the amount of e-waste we produce. In the United States alone, more than 3.5 million tons of e-waste was generated in 2009, more than double the amount generated in 2000.
Since only 19% of this e-waste was recycled, the remaining 3.2 million tons of waste has ended up in landfills where toxic materials–including lead, cadmium, and mercury–have polluted both the soil and water supply.
Electric car battery disposal
So, you have decided to buy an electric car. Congratulations! You have made a bold and environmentally friendly move that will save you thousands of dollars each year in fuel costs.
But have you considered what will happen to the batteries when the time comes to replace them? The short answer is that you have three primary options: recycling, re-use, and disposal. Each option comes with its own pros and cons.
Recycling lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles
The lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles (EVs) can be recycled at the end of their lives, but the process is not always clean or efficient. Many people think that the only way to dispose of these batteries is to burn them (at high temperatures) in incinerators, but this isn’t true.
There are stricter regulations than before that help ensure the safe transport of batteries and a new technology called closed-loop recycling that has made this process safer and more efficient.
Currently, the costs for recycling lithium-ion batteries are covered through the price of the vehicle. As electric vehicles become more popular, the demand for recycling these batteries will increase dramatically. The sheer number of lithium-ion batteries that need to be recycled is projected.
Batteries as power storage for homes and industry
Batteries are being used more and more as a power storage device due to the increased need for power during high-demand periods.
Many commercial and industrial facilities have begun to use batteries to capture the excess power generated by their solar energy systems and use that power later when they need it. Batteries are an attractive option because the electrical grid was never designed to meet spikes in demand—Batteries can fill the gap.
Batteries are usually seen as power storage devices for our technology: charge them up when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and then use that power to keep our phones and laptops running when the weather is bad.
But increasingly, batteries are being used for another purpose: to store energy for homes and industry, rather than to run equipment. This is known as distributed storage, and is a key part of the transition to cleaner, distributed energy sources that don’t rely on large, centralized power plants.
Second life for lithium-ion batteries
A new design for lithium-ion batteries just might save the planet on a lot of fronts. By using the discharged battery cells to generate electricity, the new device not only eliminates the need for mining for lithium, which may be linked to child labor, but could also completely avoid greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, the new design could eliminate the need to change old batteries for new ones. Lithium-ion batteries don’t like being hot and cold; they perform best at room temperature and lose their capacity to hold a charge over time. But the new design could be inserted into an existing battery to keep it running efficiently.
For an electric car, the car battery is the largest single source of environmental impact and cost of ownership. This is because the battery pack is expensive (up to $20k, or $8-15k per kWh), and there is no way to reuse or recycle the battery. So what do you do with it when you’re done driving? The best bet is to have it recycled. (The worst option is to just toss in the trash.)