Cracking the Code on Recycling Energy Storage Batteries

October 30, 2020 | 12:40 pm
US Department of Energy
James Gignac
Midwest Senior Policy Manager

Update: For additional resources on the lifecycle of energy storage batteries, please see blog posts by Charlie Hoffs available here, here, and here.

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on solar panels and wind turbines. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Lithium-ion batteries dominate the energy storage scene

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries might be known to everyday consumers as the rechargeable batteries which power our cellphones, cameras, and even toothbrushes. Apart from storing energy for small devices, Li-ion batteries are now being used at a much larger scale to store energy for electric vehicles (EVs) and as storage for renewable energy systems like wind and especially solar.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that prices for battery packs used in electric vehicles and energy storage systems have fallen 87% from 2010-2019, much faster than expected. As the prices have fallen, battery usage has risen.

So have the conversations on what can and should be done with Li-ion batteries when they reach the end-of-use stage. Here we will focus on recycling of lithium-ion batteries from energy storage systems, but for more information on increasing possibilities for second-life uses of EV batteries, see our former colleague Hanjiro Ambrose’s blog and podcast episode.

As a key energy storage technology, batteries are important for incorporating higher amounts of wind and solar power on the grid.

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only kind of grid-scale batteries (others include redox flow and newer zinc-hybrid batteries), but they account for the majority. The reason for Li-ion battery storage dominance is that they are lightweight and have high energy density (energy stored per unit of volume or mass).

There is not a single type of Li-ion battery, though. They may be comprised of a variety of chemistries, which is one of the challenges that comes with recycling them through varying stages. The commonality is that all Li-ion batteries transfer lithium-ions between their electrodes when charging or discharging. As the chemistries continue to evolve with increased research for efficiency, so too must the consideration for streamlining their makeup to facilitate end-of-use recycling.

Lead-acid batteries, such as those found in combustion engine vehicles, have a better established and largely efficient circular market. In the US, these lead-acid batteries have up to a 99 percent recycling rate. There are two main reasons behind this. First, the components are easy to separate and recycle. For example, lead is indefinitely recyclable without losing its quality and therefore value. Second, there is an established recycling market, where car battery recycling is often included in the upfront cost of a consumer buying a vehicle. At the battery’s end-of-use, customers are refunded for returning used batteries to dealers or other sites.

With Li-ion batteries, the amount of recycling is limited, because these same two conditions do not apply, at least not yet.

Solutions to addressing the current recycling limitations with Li-ion batteries

The first challenge in recycling or disposing of Li-ion batteries is that they are classified as hazardous waste, due to their chemistries and combustibility. As a result, many regulatory guidelines must be followed at the batteries’ end-of-use. Having different chemistries, including lithium manganese oxide and lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, complicates the logistics of recycling due to the possibility of mixing different chemicals in unfortunate ways.

From a market perspective, one of the largest challenges is the lack of resale value for the Li-ion battery components. As mentioned, the costs of these batteries have declined significantly in recent years. Today, lithium is relatively inexpensive to mine, especially compared to the cost to recover and recycle lithium, given the limited infrastructure and demand. However, cobalt, nickel, and manganese components can still drive value streams in recycling, as they are more expensive.

Apart from environmental and social responsibility for clean energy technology advancement, energy security can be an additional factor behind the support for a robust market of repurposing and recycling Li-ion batteries. If the US wants to decrease its dependence on overseas mining and investment, then pursuing a domestic recycling sector is a wise course. While the Coronavirus pandemic has led to a temporary drop in demand for lithium, electric vehicle sales are still predicted to rise over the next few decades, as is utility-scale battery storage power capacity in the next few years.

Government can play a role in increasing the circularity of Li-ion batteries. Indeed, in 2019, the US Department of Energy (DOE) launched the ReCell Center, a Li-ion battery research and development recycling center led largely by the Argonne National Laboratory in partnership with advisors from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and several universities. The ReCell Center has an environmental and economic directive with a goal to foster a battery recycling industry in the US.

A battery storage facility in McHenry County,  Illinois.

Additionally, the DOE is looking beyond its research partnerships for innovative ideas to help support an increase in Li-ion battery recycling, including through the Battery Recycling Prize competition. Finalists from the three-phase competition will pilot business models and technology solutions for commercial-level recycling. This effort seeks to ensure that the life cycle of Li-ion batteries can be harnessed for its full market potential here in the US as demand continues to increase through EVs and energy storage applications.

Internationally, the World Economic Forum has created a platform called the Global Battery Alliance aimed at creating a sustainable battery supply chain by 2030. The Alliance is a public-private partnership of 70 organizations focused principally on how best to increase the repurposing or recycling of batteries. These efforts are aimed at reducing the need for extractive material sourcing—often linked to numerous negative environmental and social outcomes—and at the need to decrease the carbon footprint of Li-ion battery production.

As these global and federal efforts to increase battery recycling proceed, it is likely that a key outcome or recommendation will be the need for more regional end-of-use processing plants built to handle Li-on batteries. In this vein, it is a positive sign that states are beginning to assess their role in energy storage systems life-cycle management. For example, North Carolina’s House Bill 329, which passed in July 2019, requires the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to create a state regulatory program addressing end-of-use management for solar photovoltaic panels and energy storage system batteries, as well as decommissioning of utility-scale wind and solar facilities. In addition, New York State recently welcomed announcement of a second Li-on battery recycling facility near Rochester, NY, supported in part through public-private investment programs.

On the industry side, as the market for EVs increases, manufacturers should aim to match the recycling success of their combustion predecessors by collecting them back in mass for secondary markets (such as use in energy storage systems) or for recycling. There is a benefit to Li-ion battery storage for renewables ramping up alongside EV vehicle popularity. The two have a somewhat shared market, with potential for second-life applications, and there are ways for manufacturers and policymakers to benefit from these synergies. All lithium-ion battery consumers—especially environmentally minded ones—will feel more confident about their investment in EVs or energy storage if the supply chain for these batteries can be more circular.

For that to happen, new recycling infrastructure and policy incentives are needed to move the market in a self-sustaining direction. One example is the option of an upfront payment programs to invest in a trust fund to pay for future recycling. And, with respect to Li-ion batteries for large-scale energy storage, the recycling cost should be a line item as part of project proposals and included in state utility commission reviews prior to approval. In this way, end-user customers can be assured that they are investing in energy storage systems by developers that have thought about and planned for how to manage end-of-use considerations in a responsible fashion.

Please see the other blogs in this series for an introduction to recycling clean energy technologies, as well as additional information on recycling solar panels and wind turbines.