How Recycled Batteries Play a Dual Role for Microgrids

Jan. 16, 2023
Recycling batteries creates both a resource and a market for microgrids

As battery recycling and repurposing grow, microgrids can supply electricity for the recycling and then use the batteries.

Microgrids can benefit from the increase in battery recycling and repurposing, either by providing electricity for recycling operations or by using less expensive and more sustainably produced repurposed batteries or recycled materials.

A number of factors are moving the battery recycling and repurposing markets in ways that could benefit the microgrid industry. The move to electric vehicles (EVs) and electrification are boosting demand, while low supplies of the raw materials are increasing battery prices. These factors mean recycling and repurposing are important.

McKinsey estimates that, compared to new batteries, second-life batteries are 30% to 70% less expensive. And the Union of Concerned Scientists says that by 2050, battery recycling could supply 22% to 27% of lithium, 40% to 46% of nickel and 45% to 52% of cobalt needed for EVs in the US.

New laws spur battery recycling

What’s more, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides incentives to microgrid developers and others for buying batteries whose materials are manufactured in the US.

“With the rising requirements for domestic content in EV batteries outlined in the IRA – and the multiyear process for permitting and producing raw ore at any new mine – recycling lithium batteries will be essential to developing a secure, sustainable domestic supply chain for these critical materials,” said Steve Cotton, CEO and president of Aqua Metals, which is working to produce recycled battery materials using clean electricity – and to use microgrids to produce that power.

In addition, the federal government, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, has begun a push to ensure that more batteries are produced in the US.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) late last year announced nearly $74 million in federal funding from the infrastructure law for 10 projects to move forward technologies and processes for EV battery recycling and reuse.

All these factors make recycling and repurposing attractive, and microgrid developers have their eye on the technologies.

Second life batteries for EV charging

One microgrid company, Instant On, is working with Relyion Energy to deploy second-life batteries in EV charging stations and as storage in microgrids.

When EV batteries are retired, they have about 70% to 80% life and performance left over, said Surinder Singh, co-founder of Relyion Energy.

“Only a small amount of degradation has taken place. Hence, to prematurely recycle them before their true end of life does not make sense,” said Singh. The individual modules and cells degrade at different levels; the technology Relyion developed utilizes these differently degraded components without being limited by the bad ones, he added.

The company uses innovative circuitry along with physics-based machine learning and artificial intelligence to repurpose EV batteries that have various states of health and degradation rate levels, said Singh.

The second-life batteries can avoid 450 tons of CO2 emissions for every MWh of batteries deployed in addition to increasing renewables penetration, Singh said.

And the Relyion battery management system can serve as an energy management system for stacking revenue opportunities offered by utilities.

15- to 20-year lifespan

Reylion designed, tested and validated second-life energy storage systems for behind-the-meter and front-of-meter applications, and it found the technology shows promise of increasing the second life of batteries so they can be used 15 to 20 years. That’s in addition to the approximate 10-year life of the original batteries.

“This creates a sustainable solution for spent batteries that would otherwise go to waste,” said Singh.

“Relyion’s technology creates an affordable solution that can bring everyone on board the energy system revolution,” including disadvantaged communities, which are often left out of the clean energy transition, he said.

Relyion Energy has also developed a battery-based fast charging system for EV fleets. 

Instant On is working with Relyion to deploy these technologies. “Our collaboration with Relyion Energy will lead to GWhs of battery energy storage systems deployed at microgrids and EV fast charging stations throughout California and the US, with initial projects funded by the Department of Defense and DOE,” said Miki Domine, COO of Instant On. 

While Relyion Energy repurposes batteries, efforts to recycle them sometimes lead to carbon emissions, said Aqua Metals’ Cotton.

Making recycling greener with microgrids

Pyrorecycling – a heat-based extraction and purification process creates emissions and can’t recover valuable lithium, Cotton said. Typical hydrorecycling – a process used to extract metals from ore that involves a leaching process and separation of valuable metals from the leaching solution relies on expensive one-time use chemicals that generate high emissions and produce landfill waste as a byproduct, said Cotton.

“Recycling the vast amounts of batteries coming our way with either of those approaches is fundamentally unsustainable, creating new environmental challenges instead of being a part of solving them,” said Cotton.

Aqua Metals in December 2022 began operating a pilot lithium battery recycling plant in Reno, Nevada, that uses electricity to recycle instead of intensive chemical processes, fossil fuels or high-temperature furnaces.

Aqua Metals aims to recycle using 100% clean energy, potentially from green microgrids, but hasn’t yet reached that goal. Right now, the company is purchasing power from NV Energy, whose power mix includes 30% to 40% renewable energy. Aqua Metals is also buying renewable energy credits to offset the nonrenewable portion of its electricity purchases.

“Over time, we envision generating with microgrids and renewable energy,” said Cotton.

Battery recycling and repurposing can be valuable to microgrids, providing less expensive and more sustainable batteries. It also has the potential to create a new market for microgrids: feeding electricity to recycling operations. Best of all, the batteries, along with microgrids, can help shore up a grid that has been stressed lately by storms, fires and high temperatures. Batteries provide the grid with much needed flexibility, saving clean energy produced during off-peak hours and feeding it to the grid during high-demand periods. This flexibility helps avoid rolling blackouts and the use of expensive fossil-fuel plants.

“The recent storms and flooding events in California increasingly caused by climate change show energy storage and microgrids need to be deployed extensively,” said Singh.

Interested in learning about more microgrids? Join us May 16-17 in Anaheim, California for Microgrid Knowledge 2023: Lights On!

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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