The explosive growth of solar over the last decade has led to uncomfortable realities that will affect the industry for decades to come. What can we do with systems (more particularly with batteries) once they reach the end of their lifespans? Just as plans are being implemented for solar panel recycling, so too comes the need for battery recycling and repurposing programs.
The same is a case with electric vehicles. EV batteries are larger and heavier than those in regular cars. Over that they are made up of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells, all of which need dismantling. Furthermore, they contain hazardous materials with an inconvenient tendency to explode if disassembled incorrectly.
It is estimated that there will be 30 million electric cars on European roads by 2030.
“The rate at which we’re growing the industry (EV) is absolutely scary,” says Dr. Paul Anderson. He is talking about the market for electric cars in Europe. Dr. Paul is a Reader in Inorganic and Materials Chemistry, and co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials, University of Birmingham.
Lead acid is a popular cost-effective battery chemistry, available in large quantities with little worries relating to security of the supply and in a variety of off the shelf pack sizes. Lead acid is great fit for large scale stationary applications where space is abundant and energy requirements are low.
However, when you start looking at price in terms of the power or range, lithium-ion technology can often be a more favourable option due to their high power-to-weight ratio.
Lead-acid batteries already have established recycling programs, but the same can’t be said for the lithium-ion versions used in electric cars and modern solar-plus-storage projects.
“At present, globally, it’s very hard to get detailed figures for what percentage of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but the value everyone quotes is about 5%,” says Dr. Anderson. “In some parts of the world it’s considerably less.”
- Cost: Sometimes, battery module makes it difficult to extract the cells inside, the processing itself can exceed the value of the recovered components in the battery. Starkly put, all lithium-ion batteries at current market commodity, labor, logistics and end-of-life processing prices will require an out-of-pocket recycling payment.
- Complex Recycling Process: Lithium-ion batteries are first frozen to -321°F with liquid nitrogen to prohibit combustion or explosion when the batteries are shredded. The flammable electrolyte is cleaned off and processed, and the cathode material is recovered. There are two main types of recovery technologies used in lithium-ion battery recycling: Furnace Processing & Chemical Processing.
- Little to No Processing Plants: There are multiple secondary lead-acid battery processing plants near any major regional population centers across the United States.
The Way Out
How can battery owners do the right thing? Responsible owners should follow the “recycling mantra” as best they can:
- Reduce: Avoid over-scaling a system to accommodate future use and expansion. This will produce more waste to dispose of years later.
- Reuse: Repurpose what you can by selling used batteries to interested parties for second-life functions.
- Recycle: When nothing else can be done, recycle what is no longer needed, wanted or reusable.
- More Processing Plants: With an increased demand for recycling, more regional end-of-life processing plants are required to be built to handle lithium-ion batteries.
- Awareness: As a consumer or business buying solar-plus-storage, be aware and knowledgeable of recycling requirements and plan ahead for them. It should be part of the business’s annual budget process. The trash can is not a viable option nor is it legal.
Unfortunately, many energy storage manufacturers do not formalize an end-of-life recycling plan for their products since it’s not a personal concern. Recycling is “another person’s problem.” This attitude is discouraging. This type of irresponsible e-waste dumping activity has produced the toxic wastelands in China, Africa, and South America. Our industry is going to require a lot more resources soon to deal with all the batteries we are going to have.