For now, many of the bulky batteries in use — the Tesla version weighs about 900 pounds — appear to be stockpiling in hopes of increasing the reuse and recycling markets. But eventually those batteries, along with the toxic chemicals they can leach out, may end up in hazardous landfills.
There are no electric battery recycling plants in California, and only five of them operate nationwide, according to CalEPA. This is despite the fact that the lithium-ion batteries used contain precious metals that have to be mined from the ground, mostly from external processes.
“There are still enough people who understand (retired) batteries well enough to handle them responsibly,” said Zora Chung, co-founder of Signal Hill’s ReJoule Inc. To redeploy these batteries into second life applications. “
Chung Electric Battery Diagnostic has launched a state-funded pilot project to adapt used batteries to store solar energy, a reuse that could extend their life by a decade or more — and avoid actual disassembly and recycling.
ReJoule’s nascent effort reflects a growing awareness of the battery dilemma surging to the bottom.
Thanks to its progressive environmental policies, California currently accounts for 42% of the nation’s electric vehicles. For several years, state lawmakers have recognized the potential toxic consequences of battery-powered vehicles.
Collection Bill 2832, which was signed into law in 2018, called on an electric vehicle advisory group to make legislative and regulatory recommendations to ensure that “as close to 100% as possible of the state’s lithium-ion batteries are reused or recycled at the end of their life.”
This nineteen member group includes the regulators, automakers, waste and recycling interests, environmentalists, and the battery trade group. Two and a half years later, the draft report was completed in December and took public comments on the recommendations until February 16, at which point the document would be finalized and forwarded to the legislature for action.
But some say the proposals are only a start, and that the broad range of interests represented in the group made it impossible to get majority approval for key provisions.
said Nick Lapis, a member of the committee representing University of California Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization.
“However, I think the policies that would actually solve the problem did not gain consensus.”
Of course an obstacle ahead
The state was home to 636,000 zero-emissions light vehicles by the end of 2020. The California Energy Commission’s tally includes 369,000 electric vehicles, 259,000 hybrid electric vehicles, and 7,000 fuel cell vehicles.
While this was by far the most of any state, it was only 2.3% of all light vehicles in California.
This number must grow rapidly if California is to reach its 2035 goal of sales of new, zero-emissions light vehicles. (The state has set a target of 100% for medium and heavy trucks by 2045.)
In 2019, before the pandemic eroded the availability of new cars, 2 million new cars were sold in the state, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. That means two million or more new electric vehicles should hit the road annually within 13 years, with steady annual sales growth in the meantime.
There are still significant challenges to getting all Californians in zero-emissions cars, such as creating electric vehicle charging options for people who live in apartments.
But the hurdles to reusing and recycling batteries in those cars could be even greater, in part because there is little need to develop used battery markets and systems.
With the average car on the road for about 12 years, and electric cars gaining traction in the last half-dozen years — Tesla’s Model X was introduced in 2015 — this hasn’t been much of an issue. Not many batteries have stopped working yet.
Those batteries that have reached the end of their life have not been closely tracked, and it is not clear what happens to them. One common scenario is that an aging or wrecked electric vehicle ends up in an auction, as a dismantler buys it for parts.
“These batteries may be stockpiled, pending better economics for recycling or resale,” said Alyssa Kendall, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Davis and lead author of a draft of the state report. Or it might be recycled out of state — or out of the country, she said. Or maybe they find their way into the hands of amateurs.
We don’t know,” Kendall said.
The report envisions reusing many of the batteries used to store electricity – such as storing solar energy when the sun isn’t shining – before they are actually dismantled and recycled. He notes that ReJoule is one of four state-supported pilot projects to develop methods for reuse.
When the battery doesn’t provide the vehicle’s required range, it could have another decade of use for electrical storage, according to the report.
But sooner or later, most batteries will have to be taken apart and recycled – or disposed of as hazardous waste.
One of the recycling techniques is a thermoplastic smelting process to extract valuable metals from the battery cathode. The drawback is that it recovers only a portion of the desired material – none of the precious lithium – and can lead to carbon emissions.
Perhaps most promising in terms of mineral capture and environmental sensitivity is the process of chemical leaching with aqueous mineral.
But as technology develops to determine the best approach, the biggest hurdles may be California’s stringent environmental regulations — especially since batteries qualify as hazardous waste.
For example, permits to process hazardous waste take an average of two years to be approved and the last new hazardous facility was approved eight years ago, according to the report. So there are no modern models for the most effective way to negotiate a cumbersome regulatory process.
“I think[battery recycling]is much further from a policy point of view than from a technology point of view,” said Hunjiru Ambrose, a researcher at the University of California, Davis who was the lead advisor for the government committee.
There are no quick solutions
Besides there is no comprehensive process for tracing electric vehicle batteries, there is no system in place to coordinate their collection, reuse after the vehicle, or disposal once the warranty has expired, the report says.
“Without a mechanism for collecting stuck batteries, they can be unsafely accumulated, abandoned illegally, or improperly managed both locally and externally,” she says.
One of the main recommendations is to assign responsibility for ensuring that batteries are reused, reused for other purposes, or recycled. This responsibility lies with the battery supplier if the battery is still under warranty, the disassembler if the vehicle has reached the end of its life, or the vehicle manufacturer if the retired vehicle does not go to disassembler.
A proposal to make the automaker responsible for most, if not all, of the batteries at the end of their life — including to cover recycling costs — did not win a majority vote, although the legislature could consider accepting such a law.
The environmental handling fee that must be collected at the time of vehicle purchase is also denied.
Other approved recommendations include labeling batteries so that recyclers know exactly what’s inside, providing economic incentives for recyclers, and supporting the development of domestic battery manufacturing, most of which are now manufactured overseas.
Massive battery import results in a large carbon footprint, and offshore mining of battery materials has raised environmental and labor issues, including child labour.
But the 89-page report, filled with findings and recommendations that took two and a half years to develop and will now require either new legislation or new regulations, offers no quick fixes.
Even the practical and welcoming efforts already underway, such as the ReJoule pilot project to repurpose batteries for solar energy storage, are hardly easy.
ReJoule has an extensive blog post titled “The Obstacle Course on Reusing Used Electric Vehicle Batteries.” While many of those hurdles are technical and logistical, co-founder Chung said the company is also preparing for a rigorous regulatory process — even though the company is seen as a much-needed critical innovator.
“We haven’t started the permitting process yet, but I’ve heard from several sources that it could be a huge hurdle,” she said.
Like a smart investor, Kaliba spokeswoman Erin Curtis responded that with challenge comes opportunity. She cited the report as an important basis for turning an approaching toxicological assault into an environmental windfall.
“Because this is an emerging industry and technology, California now has an opportunity to put in place policies and procedures initially that will protect public health and the environment,” Curtis said.
If all goes right, then California will be a leader not only in putting electric cars on the road, but in dealing with the massive toxic waste that those vehicles will leave.