As California accelerates its push toward 100% zero-emission new car sales by 2035, hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle batteries will end their lives on the highway — and it’s unclear what will happen to them .
Currently, many of the massive used batteries – the Tesla version weighs around 900 pounds – appear to be stored in hopes of greater reuse and recycling markets. But eventually, these batteries, along with the toxic chemicals that may leak from them, could end up in hazardous waste landfills.
According to CalEPA, there are no electric vehicle battery recycling plants in California and only five are operational nationwide. This is despite the fact that used lithium-ion batteries contain valuable minerals that otherwise have to be mined from the earth, mostly from overseas operations.
“There still aren’t enough people who understand (removed) batteries well enough to manage them responsibly,” said Zora Chung, co-founder of Signal Hill’s ReJoule Inc. “Ultimately, we have need more education and to have a more effective market to redeploy these batteries in a second life application.
Chung’s EV battery diagnostics company has launched a state-funded pilot project to adapt used batteries for solar storage, a reuse that could extend their life by a decade or more – and prevent dismantling and disposal. actual recycling.
ReJoule’s fledgling effort reflects a growing awareness of the battery dilemma rolling down the pike.
Thanks to its progressive environmental policies, California currently accounts for 42% of the nation’s electric vehicles. And, for several years, state lawmakers have recognized the potential toxic consequences posed by battery-powered vehicles.
Assembly Bill 2832, signed into law in 2018, called for the creation of an electric vehicle advisory group to develop legislative and regulatory recommendations to ensure that “as close to 100 percent lithium-ion battery ion in the state to be reused or recycled at end-of-life.”
The 19 members of this group include regulators, automakers, waste and recycling interests, environmentalists and a battery trade group. After 2½ years, he completed a draft report in December and is collecting public comment on the recommendations until February 16, when the document will be finalized and forwarded to the Legislative Assembly for action.
But some say the proposals are just the beginning, and the wide range of interests represented in the group has made it impossible to win majority approval for key elements.
“The report identifies several policy solutions that have proven effective for other products in California and for batteries in countries around the world,” said panel member Nick Lapis, who represents Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit organization. profit-making research and defense of the environment. .
“However, I think the policies that would actually solve the problem haven’t been agreed upon.”
Upcoming Obstacle Course
The state was home to 636,000 zero-emission light-duty vehicles at the end of 2020. The California Energy Commission’s tally includes 369,000 electric vehicles, 259,000 plug-in hybrids and 7,000 fuel cell vehicles.
Although this was by far the most of any state, it was only 2.3% of all light-duty vehicles in California.
That number needs to grow quickly if California is to meet its 2035 goal of 100 percent new zero-emission light-duty vehicle sales. (The state has set the 100% target for medium and heavy trucks at 2045.)
In 2019, before the pandemic curbed new car availability, 2 million new cars were sold in the state, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. That means 2 million or more new electric vehicles are expected to hit the road every year 13 years from now, with steady annual sales growth in the meantime.
Significant challenges remain to get all Californians into zero-emission cars, such as creating electric vehicle charging options for people who live in apartments.
But the barriers to reusing and recycling batteries from these cars could prove even greater, in part because there hasn’t yet been much need to develop markets and regulations for used batteries.
With the average car on the road for about 12 years and electric vehicles only gaining traction over the past half dozen years – Tesla’s Model X came out in 2015 – it hasn’t been a major problem. There just haven’t been many batteries removed so far.
These batteries that have reached the end of their life have not been closely monitored, and it is not known what happens to them. A common scenario is to find the aging or wrecked electric vehicle at auction, where it is purchased by a dismantler for parts.
“These batteries can be stored, pending better economics for recycling or resale,” said Alissa Kendall, a UC Davis engineering professor and lead author of the draft state report. Or maybe they’re recycled out of state — or out of the country, she said. Or maybe they end up in the hands of amateurs.
“We just don’t know,” Kendall said.
The report envisions many used batteries being repurposed for electrical storage – such as storing solar power when the sun isn’t shining – before they are actually dismantled and recycled. He notes that ReJoule is one of four state-funded pilot projects to develop methods for such a redirection.
When a battery no longer provides the desired range for a car, it can have another decade of use for electric storage, according to the report.
But sooner or later, most batteries will need to be dismantled and recycled – or disposed of as hazardous waste.
One recycling technique is a pyrometallurgical smelting process to extract valuable minerals from the battery cathode. The downside is that it only recovers some of the desired materials – and none of the valuable lithium – and can lead to carbon emissions.
A hydrometallurgical chemical leaching process is perhaps more promising in terms of mineral capture and environmental sensitivity.
But as technology evolves to determine the best approach, a bigger hurdle may be California’s strict environmental regulations, particularly because batteries are considered hazardous waste.
For example, hazardous waste permits take an average of two years to be approved and the last new hazardous facility was approved eight years ago, according to the report. There are therefore no recent models on the most efficient way to negotiate a cumbersome regulatory process.
“I think (battery recycling is) much further away from a policy standpoint than a technology standpoint,” said Hanjiro Ambrose, a UC Davis researcher who was the panel’s lead adviser. of state.
No quick fix
Besides that there is no thorough process to track electric vehicle batteries, there is no system to coordinate their collection, reuse after the car or disposal after the warranty expires, the report says. .
“Without a collection mechanism for stranded batteries, they can be unsafely accumulated, illegally dumped or mismanaged domestically and overseas,” the report said.
A key recommendation is to assign responsibility for ensuring that batteries are reused, repurposed, or recycled. This responsibility would fall to the battery supplier if the battery is still under warranty, to the dismantling if the car has reached its end of life or to the vehicle manufacturer if the car withdrawn is not entrusted to a dismantling.
A proposal to make the carmaker liable for most, if not all, end-of-life batteries – including covering recycling costs – failed to garner a majority vote, although the Assembly legislature could consider adopting such a bill.
An environmental management tax, to be collected at the time of vehicle purchase, was also rejected.
The host of other endorsed recommendations include labeling batteries so recyclers know exactly what’s inside, providing economic incentives for recyclers, and supporting the development of domestic battery manufacturing, because most are now made overseas.
Importing huge batteries results in a large carbon footprint, and mining battery materials overseas has raised both environmental and labor issues, including child labor.
But the 89-page report, dense with conclusions and recommendations that took 2.5 years to develop and will now require either new legislation or new regulations, offers no quick fix.
Even the practical and well-received efforts already underway, such as ReJoule’s pilot project to reuse batteries for solar storage, are hardly easy.
ReJoule has many blog posts titled “The Obstacle Course on the Road to Reusing Used Electric Vehicle Batteries”. While many of those hurdles are technological and logistical, co-founder Chung said the company is also preparing for a rigorous regulatory process — despite the company being seen as a crucial and indispensable innovator.
“We haven’t started the clearance process yet, but I’ve heard from multiple sources that it can be a big hurdle,” she said.
Like a savvy investor, CalEPA spokeswoman Erin Curtis responded that with challenge comes opportunity. She stressed that the report was important groundwork to turn the impending toxic attack into an environmental boon.
“Because this is an emerging industry and technology, California now has the opportunity to put policies and procedures in place from the outset that will protect public health and the environment,” said Curtis. .
If all goes well, then California would be a leader not only in getting electric cars on the road, but also in managing the massive toxic waste these vehicles will leave behind.