Early model electric vehicles are already running low on juice, with some batteries down to around half their original capacity. With the international auto industry slow to find solutions, one New Zealand company is using Kiwi ingenuity to repurpose old batteries and keep the cars – and their owners – going further for longer.
As any user of an old phone will know, lithium batteries lose capacity over time and need to be charged more often. This is problematic for owners of old electric cars too, since early models started life with a low ‘range’ – the distance they could travel on a single battery charge. The first Nissan Leafs from 2011 had 120km of range and with a likely degradation of 3-5% per year they would only have a 66km-88km range remaining today.
While e-vehicle manufacturers have focused on improving the range of new cars – the latest Leaf purportedly has a range of 360km – it still doesn’t help owners of first generation Leafs. In Japan, Nissan do offer the opportunity to trade in old batteries for refurbished ones at a fee of US$8500, though these still require installation and only bring the cars back up to their original range. What’s more, the service is unavailable in the rest of the world. But one local company may have found a solution for Leaf owners here: rebuilding cars’ battery packs with new battery modules so their capacity is better than when they were new.
Blue Cars started life as a rental company; co-owner Carl Barlev only moved into repairs after one of the company’s cars was in a crash.
“The panel beater said the required part would cost several thousand dollars to import from Japan, plus labour and GST, not to mention lost revenue from taking the car out of the fleet,” says Barlev.
“Then I was at an electric car expo around 2015 and met Bill [Alexander], who has a company that sources spare parts for Land Rovers. He agreed to do a trial repair using a part from another car that only cost a few hundred dollars. We went on from there.”
Barlev is an experienced electrical engineer, Alexander has a mechanical engineering background, and their combined skills were perfect for working on electric vehicles. Barlev gave Alexander a stake in the company and brought him on as a director, which led Blue Cars into servicing and repairing Nissan Leafs. Over the next few years, Blue Cars went from subleasing 10% of Alexander’s warehouse to taking over 80% of it.
Blue Cars started buying up old Nissan Leaf wrecks for parts and investigating ways to repurpose their batteries. Barlev took the first two packs they obtained and used these for his own house. A resident of Waiheke’s Awaawaroa eco-village, Barlev believes that repurposing car batteries to store renewable energy is a no-brainer.
“The power demand from a solar system like we have on Waiheke is 8 kW maximum and under 2 kW on average, whereas in a Leaf you’re looking at a maximum demand of 80 kW and 10-20 kW while cruising,” he says.
“So the demand in the car is around ten times higher. If you take out a car battery while it’s at 70% [total capacity] and put it into a home, it’ll last far longer. In a car it might last another four years, but in your home it could last another ten years or more.”
Blue Cars subsequently began installing batteries from other wrecks into customer’s cars, since they realised someone who owned a car with a battery health of 55% would happily pay a small fee to bring it up to above 70%. Their next step was even more ambitious: seeking to replace old cells with new ones bought from overseas. The main hurdle was reprogramming the cars to recognise the new range, but they received a small amount of funding from EECA (the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) to investigate whether replacing cells with new ones would even work.
Blue Cars have now fully tested a car upgraded with new battery cells and are poised to take their first customers. The cost of new battery cells and the large amount of labour means this will be quite expensive – $19,950, including GST and installation. They’d hoped to receive additional EECA funding to help cover the cost of the first trial upgrades, but were unsuccessful. The company won’t even make a profit on the first few upgrades, though they’ve identified future cost-cutting potential.
Even at this price the service will undoubtedly find customers, given that purchasing a newer Nissan Leaf with a similar range would cost upwards of $44,000. For those drivers that want to keep their early-model Leaf there is a significant saving to upgrading the battery to a higher range.
Blue Cars will be left with the problem of what to do with the old cells they remove from the Leafs. But Barlev, who has seen the resale value of wrecked Leafs double in the past few years, believes he’ll easily sell them on for home storage or the conversion of other cars or motorbikes. However, he also believes there needs to be a more systematic solution for truly worn-down batteries.
Fortunately, players from the wider e-vehicle industry are already looking into the issue of what to do with truly dead batteries. In November, Vector launched the Battery Industry Group which is also supported by EECA, the Motor Industry Association, and over 80 other businesses. Vector’s chief public policy and regulatory officer Mark Toner sees the project as directly related to their core business.
“Vector is increasingly using large battery storage – including lithium-ion batteries – on the Auckland network,” Toner says. “Vector PowerSmart also provides solar and energy storage solutions for commercial-scale customers, so it makes sense for us to help ensure that there is a circular economy set up in this area.
“There needs to be a clear end-of-life path for these batteries when they have served out their usefulness. In addition to potential product stewardship regulation on the horizon, large lithium batteries contain valuable materials so it makes sense to establish the potential gains from extracting value from them at end of life.”
The launch of the Battery Industry Group also coincided with the release of Vector’s Batteries and the Circular Economy white paper and its technical addendum which shares battery trends and data. The documents outline the need for a structured system for repurposing old batteries which still have a useful amount of power in them, rather than relying on the current informal system.
Once these second-life uses have been exhausted, the batteries then need to be recycled, but there is only one Australasian company, Envirostream, currently able to do this work. With the number of end-of-life batteries in New Zealand set to skyrocket over the coming decade, it is hoped there will be facilities built here to pre-process them in the near future.
The aim is to create a similar system to the one used for lead acid batteries, since there are clear standards for disassembly of lead batteries along with regulations that make it illegal to dispose of them in landfill.
Despite having only just launched, the Battery Industry Group has already been mentioned in a Global Battery Alliance white paper at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Meanwhile Blue Cars have been so inundated with inquiries that Barlev has had his phone on silent since January and talks to people only by appointment.
This unprecedented interest indicates that the work being done here is at the cutting edge, and that the Kiwi passion for innovation is finding fertile ground in the world of electric vehicles.
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