Electric vehicles (EVs) make up about 1.2 million of all vehicles on the road. In Arizona there are about 20,000 zipping around our roadways, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). EV charging infrastructure is more abundant than ever in the US and Canada – it is easy to find EV charger installation in Toronto for example – and as new electric vehicles become available, EPRI expects that EVs will account for 10% of vehicles by 2025.
There are many perks to driving electric – from lower registration fees and maintenance, to HOV access and decreased fuel costs – but the importance of lowering carbon emissions and creating a sustainable future is the driving force behind SRP encouraging the adoption of electric vehicles. However, questions have come up about whether they’re truly a more sustainable option.
“Sustainability isn’t just a choice anymore; it’s a real opportunity to make a difference and help clear the air. The economy is electrifying, and SRP has a responsibility to serve its customers. That’s why we’re excited about our goal of enabling 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2035.” –Kathy Knoop, Principal Environmental Scientist at SRP
Current state of electric vehicle batteries
EV battery designs continue to develop and vary across automakers but generally consist of smaller batteries containing chambers, or “cells,” bundled together. When combined with other components, battery cells are able to power a vehicle quietly and cleanly. Depending on what type of battery a car has, many combinations of earth mineral materials are used to create it. Commonly used materials are cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium, which are mined from the countries depicted in the map below.
An electric vehicle battery can be expected to power a vehicle for about seven to 10 years (or more!) and must be reused or recycled. This is where the biggest opportunities for innovation lie.
Electric vehicles’ battery recycling process
Recycling batteries is vital to the success of electrifying our roadways and making electric vehicles a truly sustainable choice for consumers. Part of the challenge is that EV batteries are not standardized, so recycling services may need to adjust their processes based on the type of battery they’re disassembling.
We enlisted the help of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to provide more insight. The independent, nonprofit research organization said:
“Currently, most recycling processes for EV batteries use both physical and chemical processing steps due to complicated battery structures and the mix of materials used. These steps can be energy-intensive, so much of the ongoing research is seeking ways to make these processes more energy-efficient, less costly, and raise material-recovery rates. Few sites in the U.S. collect and pre-process batteries for recycling, but much of the material is currently sent out of the country for final processing (e.g., Canada).”
In other words, the process for recycling electric vehicles needs a little work. The Department of Energy launched a contest to encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to come up with new ways of collecting, sorting, storing and transporting lithium ion batteries aimed at recycling and repurposing these critical materials.
Innovative companies taking charge
According to the Institute for Energy Research, many EV batteries are retired with up to 70% of their energy capacity remaining unused. Considering the institute projects that there will be about 3.4 million batteries in existence by 2025, it’s vital to have a plan in place for how to repurpose electric vehicle batteries.
Leading the way in Japan, Nissan is powering streetlights with used EV batteries. In Paris, Renault is using batteries as backup power for elevators. And in Michigan, GM is using Chevy Volt batteries to back up its data center. Batteries are being given a second life including home energy storage, solar energy farms, electric bikes and power tools.
The bottom line
Electric vehicles are still a better choice for the environment, although their manufacturing and recycling processes are far from perfect. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, battery-electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when the pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for.
At the end of the day, unlike oil and gas, electric vehicle batteries can be reused for many different purposes.
Taking action now
SRP is committed to being an active leader in the EV revolution. Resident environmental scientists, electric vehicle and battery experts who serve on the boards of groups such as NAATbatt. Employees who work with local legislators are advocating every day for the robust charging infrastructure that it will take to power the growing community of electric vehicles.
SRP is proud to offer the largest workplace charging program in Arizona. This includes a fleet of 133 electric and plug-in vehicles; and rebates for businesses that want to electrify their fleets.