The electrified future is much closer than you think. The UK government has already committed to a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, with hybrid cars to be phased out by 2035.
Soon, the noxious fumes and rasping exhaust pipes of the conventionally-fuelled cars that clog up our streets will be replaced by the gentle whirr of electric motors.
Oil and gas, too, will be replaced with non-polluting renewables, so our cars can be powered by sustainable energy at the source.
While this may appear to be an ideal path to sustainable road travel, there remains one obvious question. What happens to EV batteries when they’re no longer fit for purpose?
In this article, we consider how long batteries last, what happens when they’re no longer able to power a car, and whether electric car batteries can be recycled.
If you want to cut down your carbon emissions (and look good doing it) then it is time to consider ‘going electric’. For the best deals on EVs, be sure to compare electric car lease deals with Lease Fetcher.
How long do electric car batteries last?
Batteries just don’t seem to be built to last these days. At least, that’s what you’d think based on the average 2-3 year lifespan of most smartphones.
Fortunately, electric car batteries last a long longer. Unlike smartphones, electric cars have much more sophisticated thermal management technology, so they degrade at a much slower rate. In fact, most experts expect EV batteries produced today to outlive the cars that they’re built for.
You can expect the average EV battery to last for about 500,000 miles, though Tesla has already teased its own ‘million mile’ battery.
Still not convinced? Earlier this year, a proud owner of a 2014 Tesla Model S P85 took to Twitter to celebrate reaching 1,500,000km on the odometer. That’s 932,256 miles, on an 8 year old battery!
What happens when EV batteries can't power cars?
But what happens when EV batteries can no longer power a car? Are electric cars actually better for the environment, or will they cause other environmental issues like soil and water pollution as toxic chemicals from their disused batteries slowly seep into the ground?
Thankfully, there are still plenty of uses for an EV battery, even when it is no longer able to reliably power a car.
Can EV batteries be reused?
Yes! In fact, this is the best way to deal with old EV batteries.
According to researchers at Cornell University, the carbon footprint of a lithium-ion EV battery can be reduced by as much as 17% if it is reused before being recycled.
But what can EV batteries be repurposed for?
The tugs, similar to the versions that pull baggage trains at airports, are normally equipped with heavy trays of lead-acid batteries. Used lithium-ion Audi e-tron batteries are not only easier to charge, but also allow them to maintain a constant speed while climbing ramps in the factory.
According to Audi, repurposing e-tron batteries in this way throughout its 16 factories could save millions of dollars and allow the safe re-use of batteries.
Renewable energy storage
Fluctuations in the supply and demand of energy can cause instability in the energy grids. This is a much greater issue when relying on a renewable energy source, such as solar. Factors such as cloud cover vary from time to time. This can lead to periods of reduced power generation or an overabundance of power which leads to wastage.
Batteries can be used to effectively balance the grid by storing excess energy produced and using it in times of higher demand, or reduced power output.
UK-based Connected Energy has recently installed one of its second-life energy storage systems at The Hold heritage facility at the University of Suffolk’s Ipswich Campus.
The facility, which houses the local council’s archive collection, uses a low carbon energy system, including solar power and electric vehicle charging outlets. Powered by 24 second life Renault Kangoo batteries, the new 300kW/360kWh E-STOR system is able to optimise energy use and manage peak loads.
Similar solutions have been implemented in eco-housing cooperatives, such as Riksbyggen’s Viva housing cooperative in Gothenburg, Sweden, where old Volvo bus batteries are being used to store solar energy and balance supply and demand for the 132 apartments.
Back-up power supplies
Nissan’s Blue Switch project plans to use old electric car batteries for mobile emergency power supplies in the aftermath of natural disasters. The idea of using Nissan's electric vehicles during natural disasters came about during Japans' 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Japan is a country that is used to typhoons and earthquakes, enduring one-tenth of the world’s earthquakes over the past 10 years. When 5 million homes lost power in 2011, Nissan offered a fleet of first-generation Nissan Leafs to help out.
Since then, Nissan has signed over 75 agreements with local governments and companies to provide assistance when disaster strikes. The great benefit of using an EV is that it can recharge wherever the power supply has been restored and then drive on to another area that has been left devastated.
In the UK, Renault has paired with Powervault to provide a second life for used EV batteries as home energy storage units. Such units would not only provide a back-up in the event of an outage, but also help to balance the grid as we transition to less reliable renewable sources of energy.
The partnership could reduce the cost of a Powervault smart battery by as much as 30%, helping to push the technology towards mass-market adoption.
Can electric car batteries be recycled?
Electric car manufacturers are already hard at work recycling used batteries.
In August 2021, Tesla announced that it had started building recycling capabilities at its Gigafactory in Nevada. Earlier that year, Tesla co-founder JB Straubel's Redwood Materials also raised $700 million to expand its battery recycling operations. They plan to create a “closed loop” supply chain of recycled materials for lithium-ion cells.
In Europe, Renault is already recycling electric car batteries in collaboration with waste management company Veolia and international chemical company Solvay.
Recycling electric car batteries is much better for the environment than simply disposing of them in landfill, and it will also help countries and manufacturers to reduce their dependence on resource rich-countries like China.
Unfortunately, it remains less expensive to mine more metals than to recycle them from EV batteries.
Currently, EV manufacturers are focused on reducing the cost of producing EVs by moving to less expensive electric car battery types such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP).
This will eliminate some of the more expensive metals, like cobalt, the mining of which has had devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences in the DRC.
Unfortunately, removing the most valuable metals from batteries also removes some of the incentives for recycling EV batteries in the first place.
Fortunately, governments around the world are beginning to introduce battery recycling mandates. The Chinese government introduced new rules to promote the reuse of EV battery components in 2018, while the EU commission has proposed a quota for recycling 25% of Li-on batteries by 2025, rising to 70% by 2030.
As countries around the world try to limit the global average temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, electric cars, powered by renewable energy, are set to play an important role.
Although it remains cheaper to mine new materials for EV batteries than to recycle them, EV manufacturers and governments alike are increasingly wary of new geopolitical realities that could restrict supplies, and the incoming ‘tsunami’ of used EV-batteries that need to be reused or recycled safely.
Rather than presenting a problem, EV batteries could be part of a solution - whether that’s balancing the grid as we move to less predictable renewable energy sources, or providing assistance in the wake of a natural disaster.
And that’s not all - recycling used EV batteries could soon provide the UK and Europe with its own indigenous supply of valuable metals that can be used to produce new batteries in the future.
If you’d like to know more about how electric cars work, what electric car batteries are made of, or what the future electric car battery looks like, be sure to check out the rest of our comprehensive guide to EVs.
Or, if you’re weighing up whether you should buy an electric car now or wait, be sure to check out our electric car pros and cons.
Electric cars will play a pivotal role in our transition to net zero - and with EV battery repurposing and recycling, there are no nasty surprises! If you want to reduce your own emissions, then why not compare electric car lease deals with Lease Fetcher to find the cheapest, greenest cars available now!