Last week’s piece on batteries generated questions from readers. Specifically two:
- What about the environmental impact of disposing of the battery?
- What is the carbon impact to manufacture an electric vehicle (EV)? How does it compare with a conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE)?
Let’s start with the Battery Disposal and Recycling. I’ll have more on the supply chain footprint for vehicles in a future post.
Battery Disposal / Recycling
The short answers are that we haven’t needed to dispose of or recycle EV batteries at scale, yet; and we also can’t do it yet, at scale.
Batteries which reach end-of-life as automotive batteries haven’t actually reached “end of life”. Most have between 50% and 80% of their useful capacity left. However the batteries become slower to charge, slower to deliver power impacting performance of the vehicle, and reduce the range. So the batteries are currently being given a “second life”. Manufacturers are using them in applications, like storage walls and utility grid storage.
Recycling is not only desirable, but it also makes sense economically, and most of the battery is recoverable. Up to 90% of the battery can be recovered.
Currently, according to this IEA report from 2020 (page 183) we have the global capacity to recycle 180,000 tons of batteries annually. In the same report, the IEA forecasts the demand will grow by a factor of 50 by 2030, and by a factor of 650 by 2040. So, it’s not a concern for today, but it will be tomorrow. A lot of voices are being raised about this right now. The Union of Concerned Scientists has written calling for public policy to be established, National Geographic has written a lengthy piece about the need to build recycling capacity, and the BBC has also recently reported on battery recycling.
We haven’t needed to do it because EV’s are relatively new to the market, and because the batteries are lasting longer than anticipated. Tesla, for example, warranties their batteries for 120,000 miles. However, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk himself, the batteries in the Model 3 are good for 1,500 charge / discharge cycles which he estimates to be between 300,000 and 500,000 miles.
Real-world driving has shown these claims likely to be true. It appears, for example, that the Model 3 and Model Y will probably be able to travel 400,000 miles before experiencing degradation of 20%.
But when we do need to start recycling at scale, there are multiple options available, and continuing research to improve.
And the last point, of course, is that we should have confidence that recycling capacity will come on line at scale. Not only does it make sense environmentally, but at $45k/ton cobalt (to name just one of the minerals required) is simply too valuable to discard it.
Last thought: warranties and recycling / end-of-life policies will likely vary by manufacturer. When considering the purchase of an EV, also consider the manufacturers battery disposal policy as you make your decision.