Lithium batteries are playing a pivotal role in driving the energy transition across industries, experiencing a surge in demand worldwide. With a typical lifespan of 5-10 years, these batteries undergo thorough testing and are repurposed for less power-intensive applications, such as energy storage, extending their usefulness for an additional 5-10 years.
The affordability of used lithium cells used in solar energy generation systems contributes to the reduction of renewable energy costs for end-users. Repurposing lithium batteries not only minimizes waste but also reduces the energy required for recycling. These advantages position lithium battery technology as the most sustainable power source available.
Challenges of lithium battery end of life
The production of lithium-ion batteries has witnessed a substantial surge, driven by their widespread adoption in various sectors. These batteries are increasingly used in electric vehicles, electric industrial equipment like forklifts, power storage for renewable energy generation, emergency power storage for IT and telecommunications, medical equipment, home appliances, and electronics.
The exponential growth in demand has resulted in a notable increase in the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for lithium batteries in 2022, marking the first instance of such a rise. Consequently, buyers of energy storage batteries for renewable power generation systems face higher costs.
Despite the growing rate of lithium battery recycling, there remains a pressing need to significantly reduce the volume of waste generated by the expected influx of batteries reaching the end of their useful life.
Solution: OneCharge lithium cells are reincarnated at Bluewater Battery Logistics
In 2014, OneCharge ventured into the manufacturing of lithium forklift batteries, and the majority of its battery packs have surpassed the 5-year warranty period while still actively operating in the field. However, there are instances where certain batteries are returned to the company before reaching the end of their useful life due to factors such as the completion of a trial period or physical damage.
Let’s explore the story of a specific OneCharge 80V 360Ah LFP forklift battery that had its origins in a Hyster E55XN Class I sit-down lift truck. This particular forklift operated within a fruit packaging facility located in Washington state, USA. The deployment of this battery was part of a demonstration project aimed at evaluating the advantages of lithium batteries compared to lead-acid alternatives. After the trial period, the customer decided to upgrade and placed an order for larger-capacity 630Ah 80V lithium batteries from OneCharge. Subsequently, the customer transitioned its fleet to single-battery multi-shift operations.
Upon its return, the demo battery found its way back to OneCharge. Despite having many years of remaining life in each cell, it was unable to be incorporated into a new forklift battery.
Fortunately, in 2022 OneCharge partnered with Bluewater Battery Logistics to repurpose and recycle lithium forklift batteries. Bluewater tests and evaluates batteries, and sends dead cells for hydrometallurgical recycling. Other cells find new applications. “Bluewater Battery evaluates a few variables to find the optimum way to repurpose the batteries for a second life and minimize the environmental impact,” explains Steve Feinberg, CEO at Bluewater. “We look at the condition of the cells, geographical location for minimal shipping, and our partners’ expertise to repurpose batteries.” The batteries’ new lives in secondary applications depend on how they fare in tests of voltage, Ah capacity, and various state of health (SOH) parameters.”
This is the journey of the LFP prismatic lithium cells from the Washington demo battery, leading them to the evaluation and decision-making process at Bluewater Battery Logistics, where their future purpose was determined.
Results: second life for lithium forklift battery
BlueWater collaborates with multiple companies that specialize in developing creative solutions for repurposing lithium cells across diverse applications. One notable partner is HigherWire, which specializes in catering to small- and medium-capacity users with energy needs up to 50kWh. In 2023, HigherWire has plans to install several thousand total kilowatt-hours (kWh) of capacity.
Since 2019, HigherWire has been actively acquiring used lithium batteries from various sources, including forklifts, electric vehicles (EVs), and golf carts. The company also accepts smaller 18650 cells from e-bike and scooter batteries, as well as even smaller cells from consumer electronics.
“It is really important to be able to accurately estimate batteries’ SOH,” says Trevor Warren, CEO of HigherWire. “We want to make the whole concept of repurposed lithium batteries more viable and drive the cost down.” Trevor suggests that every battery needs a digital “passport” with reliable data on usage and current state. There are significant savings in labor and energy costs for testing the cells, as well as additional trust from the end user.
Warren serves both the B2B and B2C sectors, offering power solutions and assisting in the design of solar energy generation systems for a wide range of customers. This includes local governments, municipalities, remote rural users, and solar generator setups.
Additionally, HigherWire directly sells 12V and 24V battery packs to end-users, catering to various needs such as RVs, fishing boats, portable power packs, and home reserve power systems.
A good example of the use of the HigherWire solution is through the pilot project with the City of Phoenix .“Here at the city, we want to be supporters of circular economy entrepreneurs helping our region transition from the linear economy and keep waste out of the landfill,” says Amanda Jordan, Circular Economy project manager for the City of Phoenix.
Jordan and HigherWire have joined forces for a pilot project aimed at utilizing remanufactured lithium batteries to store solar panel energy, providing power for lighting in South Mountain Park. The pilot initiative commenced on June 9, 2023, and is scheduled to run for a duration of one year. A primary focus of the project is to ensure the batteries’ ability to withstand the extreme heat conditions typical of Arizona.
“The positive outcome of this project will pave the road to the mass usage of second-life lithium cells as energy storage for the renewables (in Arizona).,” she said.
This is where the story of OneCharge demo battery ends. The lithium cells used in a forklift at the fruit packaging facility ended up in the energy storage for a solar array and are expected to work reliably for another 10 years.
U.S. will surpass 1 million annual EV sales in 2023 and used EV batteries will provide used lithium cells for bigger-scale projects. “We work to directly repurpose EV battery packs across a few different OEMs,” says Antoni Tong, CEO at Smartville, which currently has multiple grid-interconnected projects under development. “[Repurposing used lithium batteries] supports domestic supply chain and manufacturing,” explains Tong.
Smartville serves a diverse range of customers, encompassing commercial and industrial applications that vary in size from a few hundred kilowatt-hours (kWh) to several megawatt-hours (MWh). As an illustration, UC San Diego utilizes Smartville’s second-life battery energy storage system to store solar energy generated from a 200-kilowatt (kW) rooftop solar installation. This energy storage system helps reduce the demand placed on the local utility grid after sunset, consequently avoiding peak electricity rates. Additionally, the 500-kWh system developed by Smartville offers up to 48 hours of emergency backup power.
Lithium battery technology plays a crucial role in driving the energy transition, a critical component in the fight against climate change. It enables various facets of this transition by facilitating the repurposing of lithium cells at the end of their primary usage, redirecting them to less demanding applications. This process not only helps mitigate substantial waste but also stimulates the emergence of new businesses. Moreover, it contributes to the reduction in the cost of solar energy, benefiting both small-scale rural plants and large megawatt-hour (MWh) installations. These factors collectively accelerate the widespread adoption of renewable energy sources.