Proposed Redwood Materials campus in Nevada

Has Battery Recycling Arrived Too Soon? What About Second Life Energy Storage?

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There is a report out this morning from the Washington Post with this scary title — “EV Battery Recycling Has Boomed Too Soon.” Bloomberg is also carrying a version of this story. There aren’t enough used electric vehicle batteries to meet even 10% of the raw material demand for electric vehicles made in the US, the Washington Post says.

Meanwhile, the US already has more battery recycling capacity than it has batteries available to recycle, with more public and private battery recycling facilities planned or under construction. The Post summarizes its report with this pithy statement: “Many of these investments are destined to fail. Those few that succeed will do so only by diversifying away from recycling, at least temporarily.”

Whoa! Slow down a minute. The US Department of Energy just approved a $2 billion dollar loan for Redwood Materials, the battery recycling company founded by former Tesla CTO JB Straubel. Has DOE been hoodwinked? Did they not do their due diligence? How could they not know what the Washington Post and Bloomberg know?

Battery Recycling By The Numbers

It turns out the Washington Post story is based on information supplied by Circular Energy Storage, a UK consulting group that says on its home page it is “the leading source of independent information about the lithium-on battery end-of-life market. We collect and analyze data on volumes, prices, technolgy and players in the rapidly growing global reuse and recycling industry.”

Yup, you read that right. The company has two glaring typos in its business description, and yet it claims to know more about this topic than Straubel or the companies that have chosen Redwood Materials to be their battery recycling partner, companies like Ford, Rivian, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

battery recycling
Mercedes reveals battery recycling plans for the US & China, image courtesy of Mercedes

Currently, defective batteries that go directly from manufacturing to the scrap heap account for about three-quarters of batteries recycled in US and global battery plants, CES says. That percentage will decline as battery manufacturing technology improves, leaving less scrap available for recycling. Don’t expect a supply of EV traction batteries to become available until sometime in the next decade, either.

Those batteries last a long time — up to 500,000 miles according to Elon Musk — and when they are no longer suitable for their original purpose, they will be used for grid-scale energy storage or sold to used EV owners who need to replace their batteries but don’t want to pay for a new one and are willing to accept shorter range and lower performance in order to save a buck.

For all those reasons, the Washington Post (which last year published a scary story about EV drivers freezing to death on highways during winter storms) concludes its piece with this insight. “Investments in battery recycling technology and capacity aren’t a complete waste. In time, they will contribute to a more sustainable and efficient US EV battery supply chain. But achieving that goal will require more than factories and press releases. It will require batteries — and recyclers need to start planning how they’ll get them.”

Gee, I wonder if JB Straubel ever thought about where the supply of batteries for his factories might come from? Probably not. He’s not very bright and certainly not as bright as the research staff at Circular Energy Storage. Isn’t it interesting how some people scream about how used EV batteries will pile up in landfills and pollute our aquifers while others proclaim with equal ferocity that battery recycling is happening too soon? Are either of them right? Perhaps the answer is that neither has an accurate handle on the battery recycling future.

Second Life Battery Storage In California

One thing is accurate about the Washington Post story — EV traction batteries that are no longer suitable for powering an electric car still can have plenty of energy storage capacity, which can be put to good use as grid-scale storage to help absorb some renewable energy when it is plentiful and send electricity back to the grid when needed. Ars Technica has a report out this week about B2U Storage Solutions that has just activated a 25 MWh battery storage facility in California that uses second life EV batteries exclusively.

Freeman Hall, the CEO of B2U, told Ars Technica the growth of EV sales has started to provide a steady supply of high quality batteries that are suitable for grid storage duty. “We’re in the early days of the end-of-life EV batteries being available but there has been a steady stream of those batteries becoming available.”

By working with battery OEMs, B2U is getting access to a number of batteries that never spent much time in cars. “They do have some powertrain warranty dynamics where they’re replacing batteries that didn’t meet certain promise specs, and there have been some pack replacement programs for some of the early vehicles like the Leaf,” Hall said. “There are R&D batteries that are out there, they’re going to use for R&D and then becoming available. There are other sort of industry growing pains where you get some batteries that are produced that don’t quite meet specs for automotive use that can still be used for stationary storage. These batteries work very well. They’re engineered for very demanding use cases, and the use case in stationary storage is far less demanding.”

To save on costs, B2U uses complete battery packs rather than removing the cells and installing them in a new housing. To do so, it has had to build a translation layer that sits between the software that manages the storage facility and the battery management system on the battery. That layer controls charging and discharging and helps monitor the health of individual batteries.

The company is very cautious about how its software responds to any issues. “We’re setting ‘guard rails,’ if you will, that are fairly conservative,” Hall said. “Those are set far inside even the sort of nameplate specs that the OEMs provide. If anything was to ever get to our guard rails, we just shut down the batteries automatically.” The translation layer also ensures that the general commands issued by the facility-control software get translated into the specific commands needed by batteries from different manufacturers. The California facility is using batteries built for Honda and Nissan vehicles, and B2U says it has tested its software on batteries made for GM and Tesla as well.

Understanding how a battery’s capacity has declined is essential for the facility’s operation. Hall said that, during charging, the company’s software has to recognize when an individual pack has reached its capacity and tell it to disconnect at that point to allow the stronger batteries to continue charging. Conversely, the system must handle batteries with differing amounts of capacity as the system discharges, allowing those that have emptied their capacity to drop out even as the facility as a whole continues to discharge.

All of that has to be handled seamlessly so that the 1,300 individual battery packs, all with distinct performance characteristics, look like a single unit from the grid’s perspective. Right now, the company is primarily focused on storing power generated by solar panels (the battery is located at a solar facility) and selling it in the evening as the sun is setting.

But even second life batteries reach a point where they can no longer handle grid storage duty. “We’re definitely working with OEMs and with the recyclers to make sure that that life-cycle management activity is handled properly,” Hall said. “Reuse needs to be fitting hand in glove with the recycling so that it’s all handled very effectively.”

The Takeaway

Managing the production and end of useful life procedures for EV batteries presents plenty of challenges. Fortunately people like JB Straubel and Freeman Hall are working on solutions that are realistic and market driven. They don’t need a bunch of number crunchers who can’t spell running around waving their hands in the air and warning about there not being enough batteries to make recycling economical until 12 years from now. The anti-EV and anti-renewable crazies don’t need any encouragement in their indefatigable efforts to bash anything to do with EVs and renewables.

The economic system that prevails in most of the world is superbly designed to reward those who guess right and punish those who guess wrong. Fear not, things will turn out just fine and at least we are not dumping billions of used batteries in the woods the way we did with old tires for generations. We have learned a thing or two from the mistakes of the past.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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