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The future holds many, many more EV batteries. And therein lies a solution to grid storage.

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The future holds many, many more EV batteries. And therein lies a solution to grid storage.

A new study suggests vehicle-to-grid technology and reused old EV batteries could meet all of the EU’s need for battery storage—and then some.
May 28, 2024

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Decarbonizing society will require massive amounts of battery storage, both to power electric vehicles (EVs) and to smooth out the variability of renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar. A new analysis suggests that EV batteries could do double duty and serve both purposes.

Batteries require raw materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt that are only found in specific parts of the world. “The sourcing of these materials comes of course with related environmental impacts and geopolitical risks, and so it becomes crucially important that we make the most efficient use of the materials we have already produced,” says study team member Fernando Aguilar Lopez, who conducted the work as a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

“Clean energy technologies can only be deployed to the rate at which their primary materials are produced,” he says. “Any bottleneck in material production would hence directly affect our ability to deploy renewable energies.”

To figure out the best way to avoid such bottlenecks, Aguilar Lopez and his collaborators analyzed the potential for EV batteries to take the place of dedicated grid-storage batteries: either while the EV batteries are installed in cars equipped with technology that enables them to feed power back into the grid, or after their ability to hold a charge has degraded so that they are no longer suitable for use in cars but can still contribute to stationary storage.

Past studies have looked at the potential of vehicle-to-grid technology or EV battery reuse, but this is the first to analyze both technologies simultaneously in relation to the likely real-world demand for battery storage in the coming decades.

 

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The researchers built a computer model of vehicles, batteries and their storage capacity, and battery materials deployed in the European Union through the year 2050. The model takes into account the evolving need for grid storage as the green transition proceeds, and the availability of vehicle-to-grid charging and reused batteries to provide this function.

Overall, the combination of vehicle-to-grid technology and reused EV batteries could provide up to four times the EU’s projected need for battery storage in 2050, and either technology could more than do the job on its own, the researchers report in Nature Communications.

Early on, the potential of these technologies is limited because there are not many EVs on the road yet and not many of them have vehicle-to-grid capabilities. But equipping 50% of EVs with vehicle-to-grid technology or reusing 40% of retired EV batteries for grid storage could supply the EU’s battery storage needs by 2040.

These scenarios would reduce the total amount of new material that must be mined for batteries between 2020 and 2050 by 7.5% in the case of vehicle-to-grid technology and 1.5% in the case of battery reuse, the researchers found.

Overall, vehicle-to-grid technology yields a greater reduction in the amount of new material needed for batteries compared to the battery reuse strategy. It could also be deployed sooner (because it makes use of EV batteries that are still on the road rather than waiting for the batteries to wear out) and possibly more cheaply and with less need for building out new infrastructure.

Vehicle-to-grid charging “is the best available technology we have to reduce battery material demand by better utilizing the batteries already on the road for multiple purposes,” says Aguilar Lopez.

But reuse is also important—at least for now. In the long term, battery recycling is likely to become a better bet, a finding that upends a common assumption about sustainability strategies. “We tend to think of sustainability as a more or less undeniable hierarchy where reuse/repair comes always first, and recycling represents the last available option,” Aguilar Lopez says.

But battery recycling technology is still in its infancy. “Today we are not very good at recovering metals, loosing almost all the lithium, silicon, phosphorus, aluminum, and graphite, while recovering only copper, cobalt, and nickel which are more expensive,” he says. The analysis revealed that battery reuse is “a resource efficient strategy for the short term while we develop more efficient recycling infrastructure,” says Aguilar Lopez.

An recently approved EU regulation requiring a minimum amount of recycled content in batteries could therefore be counterproductive, the researchers point out—it will create an incentive to move batteries into relatively inefficient recycling programs, rather than reusing them for grid storage.

More research is necessary to work out the best policies to encourage adoption of vehicle-to-grid technology. The picture could also change with the advent of new technologies, such as sodium-ion batteries.

Aguilar Lopez will leave those questions to others; since completing his studies, he has founded a sustainable energy company in his native Guatemala. “I’m actively looking for ways in which I can put our findings in practice and hope to install some [retired EV batteries] to be integrated with solar energy,” he reports.

Source: Aguilar Lopez F. et al.  “On the potential of vehicle-to-grid and second-life batteries to provide energy and material security.” Nature COmmunications 2024.

Image: BMW.

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