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battery-recyclingSo what to do with old electric vehicle batteries? Here’s one approach: Toyota and Chubu Electric Power Co. will be constructing a large-capacity storage battery system that reuses recycled batteries from Toyota electric vehicles. This aims at addressing two key issues. It deals with ways to make use of aging EV batteries that have reached the end of their useful life for vehicle propulsion, while also enabling Chubu Electric to mitigate the effects of fluctuations in the utility’s energy supply-demand balance, a growing issue caused by the expanding use of renewable energy.

Initially, the focus will be on repurposing nickel-metal-hydride (Ni-MH) batteries since these have been used in large numbers of electric vehicles for nearly two decades. The focus will then expand to include lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries by 2030. Li-Ion batteries have generally powered the second generation of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids in more recent years, and thus will not reach their end-of-use for electric propulsion for some time still.

suppress-voltage-fluctuationThe energy storage capabilities of EV batteries diminish over time and after continuous charging and discharging. Eventually they become insufficient for powering electric cars but can still store adequate energy for other purposes. Even with their diminished performance, combining them in large numbers makes them useful for utilities and their efforts to manage energy supply-demand.

Based on the results of their initial work, the plan is to provide power generation capacity of some 10,000 kW by 2020. In a related effort, Toyota and Chubu Electric will be exploring ways to ultimately recycle reused batteries by collecting and reusing their rare-earth metals. The automaker has explored battery recycling in the past including at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch field campus in Yellowstone National Park. Here, 208 used Toyota Camry Hybrid battery packs are used to store renewable electricity generated by solar panel arrays.

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I am an electric car fan, always have been since I drove my first electric car – the experimental Sears XDH-1 – back in the mid-1970s.

Over the years I’ve driven many battery electric vehicle prototypes and all production EVs in the U.S., spending a year living with a GM EV1. I have also spent time behind the wheel of many electric car conversions from small and hopeful new EV companies ranging from U.S. ElectriCar to those founded by entrepreneurs like Malcolm Bricklin and Miles Rubin. Test drives took place on highways and test tracks on multiple continents, sometimes for short drives out of necessity and sometimes for weeks at a time. Electric cars were my beat as feature editor at Motor Trend in the 1990s, by choice. I’ve been a vocal advocate for electric cars since the first issue of Green Car Journal 20 years ago…sometimes very vocal.

Time has a way of tempering not only perspective but expectations. One example: Over two decades of following battery development, I recall clearly the high expectations many have had that battery breakthroughs would come. Affordable and energy-dense batteries would be the enabling technology that could encourage full-function battery electric cars to market, making them cost competitive with internal combustion and readily displacing cars that for 100-plus years have relied on petroleum, a commodity that has grown costlier and in tighter supply.

That battery breakthrough has yet to occur. Yes, we have batteries with better chemistry and advanced designs. But they don’t represent the breakthrough that’s been widely anticipated and they remain quite expensive, so much so that battery electric cars must still be federally subsidized because of their high battery cost and retail price. In a normal world, a compact electric SUV should not cost $50,000, nor should a four-door electric sedan be $40,000, or a small electric hatchback priced over $30,000. Yet they are. And yes, there are a few electrics priced under $30,000, but as internal combustion models they would typically be priced $10,000 to $15,000 less while offering greater functionality.

It’s understandable why electric cars are being pushed so hard. Historically, EVs have spoken to a lot of needs. States have included them in State Implementation Plans as a way to show how their state would meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act. Electric utilities see them as a pathway to selling electricity as a motor fuel. Government agencies often view electric vehicles as a panacea for (you choose) improving air pollution, mitigating petroleum use, decreasing CO2 emissions, and enhancing energy security. Automakers realize the dramatic impact that electric propulsion can have in helping achieve increasingly higher fleet fuel economy averages in coming years. Thrifty and eco-minded consumers understand the value of a smaller environmental impact by driving oil- and emissions-free, at a low cost per mile.

I remain an electric car enthusiast. But as a seasoned auto writer and industry analyst I’m also obliged to focus on reality. Today’s reality is that if we’re to make a real difference in petroleum reduction and environmental impact, battery EVs are not the short-term answer. While important and deserving of continuing development and sales, they are just one part of the solution, along with advanced gasoline, clean diesel, alternative fuel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and extended-range electric vehicles that create on-board electricity to provide full functionality. That’s the way forward.

 

Ron Cogan is editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal and editor of CarsOfChange.com