Information from John Kincaide, President, 2ndLifeBatteries.com and WeRecycleBatteries.com
The explosive growth of solar over the last decade has led to uncomfortable realities that will affect the industry for decades to come — what will we do with systems once they reach the end of their lifespans? Just as plans are being implemented for solar panel recycling, so too comes the need for battery recycling and repurposing programs.
Lead-acid batteries already have established recycling programs, but lithium-ion batteries, which have dominated modern solar-plus-storage projects, currently do not and will soon need retirement plans of their own.
How can solar battery owners do the right thing? Responsible system owners should follow the “recycling mantra” as best they can:
- Reduce: Avoid over-scaling a system in an effort to accommodate future use and expansion. This will produce more waste to dispose of years later.
- Reuse: Repurpose what you can by selling used batteries to interested parties for second-life functions.
- Recycle: When nothing else can be done, recycle what is no longer needed, wanted or reusable.
This mantra is well-intentioned, but a mantra does not necessarily translate into meaningful action. Many energy storage managers do not formalize end-of-life recycling plans for their products since it’s not a personal concern. Recycling is “another person’s problem.” This attitude is discouraging.
The time for concern is now. Let’s explore how battery recycling works today, and how we can encourage more responsible solar-plus-storage end-of-life disposal practices.
Why is lead-acid battery recycling so common?
When consumers buy cars, they have paid for the lead in the car battery including, in effect, a future deposit when the battery is recycled. When they go to any lead-acid battery dealer to return a dead battery, the dealer will pay them up to $10. This consequently establishes a virtuous cycle, motivating battery owners to recycle their batteries. In Canada and the United States, lead-acid batteries have a 98 to 99% recycling rate because lead is infinitely recyclable without any degradation. It is the most recursively recycled material worldwide with 70% of all lead-acid batteries being made from recycled lead. Nearly every lead-acid battery component is recycled or made into useful products, including the plastics, sulfuric acid and copper.
How does lithium-ion battery recycling compare?
There isn’t just one type of lithium-ion battery, so it’s important to understand which battery chemistry is being used. There are five major chemical formulations in the cathode or positive terminal of lithium batteries, and each formulation is designed for specific types of battery performance in different applications. Unlike lead-acid, there are no large metal plates in lithium-ion batteries that are easily recovered and smelted. The cathode is where most of the recoverable metallic compound value resides, along with trace amounts of lithium in the electrolyte. The valuable recoverable elements in these formulations are cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese.
There are three lithium-ion types (LCO, NMC, NCA) that use different combinations of cobalt, nickel and manganese, and their lithium compounds have some residual value. Two lithium-ion battery types (LFP, LTO) have a negative value.
Unlike small lithium-ion consumer electronics batteries, large format lithium-ion batteries incur additional labor, hazmat packaging, transport and processing costs. If the battery module makes it difficult to extract the cells inside, the processing itself can exceed the value of the recovered components in the battery.
Starkly put, all lithium-ion batteries at current market commodity, labor, logistics and end-of-life processing prices will require an out-of-pocket recycling payment. Recycling lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries is more expensive because the metal-compound-recovery value is negative. For example, 1-MWh of LFP batteries transported from Los Angeles to upstate New York for recycling would cost the battery owners $36.76/kWh. The same truck of NMC batteries would cost $13/kWh. In comparison, a full truckload of lead-acid batteries shipped from Los Angeles to upstate New York would actually profit $8.81/kWh.
Lithium-ion recycling costs look expensive compared to recycling lead-acid, which has been around for a long time. There are also multiple secondary lead-acid battery processing plants near major regional population centers across the United States, thus reducing transport costs. With an increased demand for recycling, it is hoped that more regional end-of-life processing plants will be built to handle lithium-ion batteries.
What does the recycling process look like for lithium-ion batteries?
Lithium-ion batteries are first frozen to -321°F with liquid nitrogen to prohibit combustion or explosion when the batteries are shredded. The flammable electrolyte is cleaned off and processed, and the cathode material is recovered.
There are two main types of recovery technologies used in lithium-ion battery recycling:
- Furnace processing: This method recovers the metals and requires removal of impurities through a slag-like process, and, unfortunately, the lithium compounds are captured in the “slag.” Recovering the lithium from the slag is cost prohibitive.
- Chemical processing (hydro-metallurgical): The cathode material is sent through a chemical process that separates the compounds, allowing them to then be purified, followed by refinement or chemical alteration into new compounds. Lithium compounds can be recovered and treated to be sold as lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide, primary inputs for new lithium-ion batteries.
How can we get better at recycling batteries used in solar-plus-storage applications?
We don’t want powerful, flammable lithium-ion batteries stockpiled into forgotten warehouses. It is better to have the recycling cost included in the purchase price and saved and reinvested in a trust fund to pay for future recycling. When negative value batteries such as LFP become waste, it is much more difficult to ask customers to pay for dead batteries they bought many years ago.
Through California’s e-waste recycling program, the state has recycled 2.5 billion pounds of e-waste at a cost of $1 billion since 2005. This has all been financed by consumers and businesses through their original electronics purchases, where prescribed amounts were remitted to a state trust to pay collectors, transporters and recyclers to manage future e-waste. Hundreds of millions of pounds of negative-value old CRT televisions have been collected under this program.
Twenty-four other states have e-waste laws but don’t have a pre-paid program. This should change. With no plan in place to pay ahead for end-of-life recycling and no plan obligating manufacturers or installers to pay for it, the environment will soon receive a massive wave of toxic, highly flammable battery waste. A handful of companies are working hard to scale up recycling as fast as possible to meet the recycling demand.
What should today’s customers consider when purchasing batteries for solar projects?
As a consumer or business buying solar-plus-storage, be aware and knowledgeable of recycling requirements and plan ahead for them. It should be part of the business’ annual budget process. The trash can is not a viable option nor is it legal. Find a company like 2ndLifeBatteries.com or WeRecycleBatteries.com that can handle waste properly and take the responsibility to properly budget for it. There is a lack of understanding about how much it’s going to cost. Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) needs to include recycling. LCOE is not a true measure of the cost anymore because it does not include end-of-life processes.
Another important issue is that manufacturers of these products are not designing for recyclability. Some electric vehicle companies design new battery packs to meet UL standards for second-life. This is a great benefit, allowing second-life battery sellers to move the product more quickly into second-life solar systems. Too few companies are building this into their designs, and there will soon be a realization that this needs to happen on a wider scale.
Moreover, it’s our responsibility as an e-waste industry and for buyers of solar-plus-storage systems not to ship waste batteries to other countries under the guise of “reuse” or untested, uncertified second-life batteries. This type of irresponsible e-waste dumping activity has produced the toxic wastelands in China, Africa and South America.
John Kincaide is president of battery recycling businesses 2ndLifeBatteries.com and WeRecycleBatteries.com. With decades of computer software, computer-telephony and battery technical sales experience, John’s ability to actualize unforeseen business opportunities is the basis of his serial entrepreneurship. John’s vision is to extend the useful life of advanced batteries, realizing new value for all stakeholders.