Used car batteries could help meet state energy goals, according to joint UC Berkeley, UCLA report

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A report released this month by UC Berkeley and UCLA law schools reveals that used car batteries could guide civilians down the road to reach California’s energy goals.

With California making up about 40 percent of the nation’s plug-in electric vehicle sales, researchers expect the state to soon experience a surge of used car batteries — that have lost too much power to be of use to the vehicle but still retain enough capacity to provide power to households and businesses — in a few years.

The battery packs can be repurposed and given a “second-life” outside the car. By backing up solar panels, for example, they can help homes and workplaces become energy self-sufficient.

“Just the batteries that are on the road today, driving around between four tires, would conservatively buy enough energy storage to meet one-third of our energy storage requirements,” said Ethan Elkind, the lead author of the report and an associate director of a UCLA and UC Berkeley climate change program. “We’re already on the road to get there.”

According to Elkind, the solution is a win-win situation for car companies and consumers alike, potentially lowering vehicle costs and providing alternatives to battery recycling processes.

“If I was the owner … I would do my best to sell it as a used battery than to go through the expenses of extracting all the chemicals out of the battery,” said Byron Washom, director of strategic energy initiatives at UC San Diego. “(The batteries) may have two to four times the original life of a vehicle in a stationary application.”

Dirk Spiers, the director of a battery lab in Oklahoma City, has seen the strategy’s value firsthand in his pilot tests to repurpose EV batteries into energy storage packs.

Envisioning battery packs to spread not only across the state but also across the globe, he explained they could be applicable even in developing countries that are looking for solutions to electricity crises.

“Why would they invest in technologies which clearly are outdated? It’s much easier to leapfrog and do something completely different,” he said. “Everyone generates what they consume — I think that’s the future.”

Though it may take several years for the energy packs to become widespread, Mark Higgins, senior director at the California Energy Storage Alliance, said there is much to prepare for.

The batteries, while the heart of the concept, he said, are not the only component. Implementation requires facilities to host the batteries, software to “talk” to electrical grids and equipment to interconnect the system.

He added that policymakers and regulators will be key to developing a market for the batteries.

Elkind’s publication may be the first step in that direction. Washom applauded Elkind and his colleagues for “illuminating” the way to alternative energy storage with the study.

“This is an idea that can be widely supported,” Washom said. “But if it’s unappreciated or not exposed to those policymakers and regulators, then nothing will probably happen. This publication is the catalyst to start that dialogue and start that action.”

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.