In 2007, Erica Barnett wrote a story about the Toyota Prius that generated a big discussion in the comments section about the high, and misleadingly hidden, net energy and life cycle costs of hybrid car batteries. Today, I read "When Electric-Car Batteries Die, Where Will They End Up?" in The New York Times, which explored recent developments in post-auto uses for extending the life of hybrid- and electric-car batteries. As the author Don Sherman wrote, the disposal and lifespan of these car batteries are very important to managing the positive (or at minimum: the better than bad) environmental impact drivers of these cars seek:
A decade from now, owners of electric cars, having driven their share of clean and green miles, may encounter a dashboard light flashing an unwelcome message: Check Battery.
Their first concern, quite likely, will be the expense of a new battery, which could be $10,000 or more based on today’s prices, though production breakthroughs might lower costs by then.
But ecoconscious drivers will soon turn to the matter of a final resting place for their worn-out batteries. A bulky 500-pound lithium-ion battery pack will never be a candidate for curbside recycling. And improper disposal would undo the good accrued through years of zero-emissions motoring.
While Worldchanging readers probably know that all cars, even hybrids or others of otherwise 'efficient' design, are fundamentally not sustainable, plug-in cars are arguably suitable for creating a distributed vehicle-to-grid system, as Alex Steffen described in his essay "My Other Car is a Bright Green City":
With vehicle-to-grid systems, our cars not only recharge themselves from a smart-grid, they become the back-up storage batteries for that grid, shaving off the peak demand that (the coal lobby says) demands we build a fleet of new and dirty coal power plants. The operative concept here is "smart garages" where our plug-in hybrid electrics recharge when not in use, offering increased storage capacity to the grid and thus lowering the amount of generation capacity power companies need to keep on hand for the peak surges. In other words, enough plug-in cars could actually reduce power company emissions. It could also save the utility money: RMI estimates that reduction in peak-demand to be worth about $600 a car!
And, of course, things get even more interesting if the smart grid the cars are plugged into includes significant amounts of distributed energy, which I am confident is going to continue to look like a better and better investment in places with abundant sunshine, regular winds and the like. (For more on the whole vehicle-to-grid concept, it's worth watching the video The Smart Garage: The Fleet Meets the Grid in a Carbon Constrained World.)
From Sherman's article, it looks like car makers and utilities see similar vehicle-to-grid possibilities for car batteries outside of the car, creating a kind of post-auto battery-to-grid infrastructure, which could extend the life of lithium-ion batteries:
But lithium batteries are not all doomed to a fate of dismemberment: electric car builders and battery makers say that when a battery pack is no longer able to provide full performance or driving range and a replacement is deemed necessary, three-quarters of its energy capacity remains.
That is why, in the longer term, electric utilities may be the answer to where electric car batteries will be put out to pasture.
Click here to read more.
Thumbnail Image of Chevy Volt battery pack via The New York Times, Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company.
"Their first concern, quite likely, will be the expense of a new battery, which could be $10,000 or more based on today’s prices"
"And you also should know that the battery packs are available from any Toyota dealer. The MSRP for a battery pack for a first-generation Prius is $2,299, while the MSRP for the battery pack for the second-generation cars, those from the 2004-2008 model-years, is $2,588."