Battery power plus product stewardship for a brighter future
The transition away from fossil fuels will rely heavily on large batteries – it’s estimated that EVs and stationary energy storage batteries can enable 30% of the emissions reduction needed in the transport and energy sectors.
The conversation can often steer towards electric vehicles, but large stationary batteries are just as important.
Large batteries are not yet widely used in New Zealand outside of EVs and hybrid vehicles. However, the potential applications for stationery storage are huge. These range from use in homes to store excess solar power, to national power grid stabilisation, upgrading old, inefficient battery systems and even as back up for key infrastructure in the event of natural disasters such as Cyclone Gabrielle.
The range of stakeholders in this area is wide, from EV and home solar system owners (and potential owners) to energy generation companies, vehicle and battery importers, recyclers and, well, just about anyone who has energy needs.
Like all solutions though, thought needs to go into preventing unintended consequences. In the case of batteries, it’s ensuring they are ethically and sustainably produced and don’t become a problematic waste stream at end of life.
While small markets like New Zealand, which don’t mine the minerals or manufacture large batteries, can’t have a direct impact on their production, we can ensure they are used as efficiently as possible.
Importers, retailers and consumers can also use tools like the Global Battery Alliance’s battery passport to track battery health and environmental impact and create demand for ethically and sustainably manufactured batteries.
Making this transition obviously isn’t straight forward but there is a significant amount of work being done, including in Aotearoa New Zealand by the Battery Industry Group (B.I.G).
Batteries in the Land of the Long White Cloud
One of the biggest perceived sticking points for batteries is concerns over what happens to them at the end of life. The majority of large batteries are not simple to recycle, and detractors often point to their end of life as a major obstacle. That’s where product stewardship comes in.
In New Zealand, legislation has been passed for all e-waste, including batteries, which requires regulated product stewardship schemes to be developed for these ‘priority products’.
B.I.G. is currently designing a product stewardship scheme for all non-lead acid batteries over 5kg, which will give certainty to users that they will be recovered, and repurposed or recycled.
The scheme is guided by circular economy principals, so keeping the batteries in use for as long as possible, utilising used EV batteries as second life storage before recycling them is a primary focus. Beyond managing the actual product, stewardship of the batteries can enable emissions reduction and create energy security.
Surging advancements and demand
Batteries are far from a new technology, but it’s one which is seeing fast-paced advancements. The development of solid-state batteries, for example, could see EV ranges exceed ICE vehicles and take the same amount of time to ‘refuel’.
The co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, recently announced his team has developed a solid-state battery which charges in minutes, lasts longer, and holds three time as much energy as his old invention. These same advancements would mean stationary batteries can perform far better than they currently do.
The rapidly increasing demand for batteries means they have become a valuable commodity after their initial useful life has ended. As a result, the focus is less on simply keeping them out of landfill and more on enabling their continued use through innovation and collaboration.
An EV battery, for example, may only be useful to power a vehicle until it reaches the ability to hold around 70% charge, but can still serve for many more years as a stationary energy storage unit.
Modern battery technology is relatively new, so a battery’s secondary life is somewhat unknown. Many EV batteries are already far exceeding their expected life span as vehicle powerplants, so their secondary life as a static power storage unit could be another 10 to 20 years. The life of units built specifically for power storage, using the latest technology, could be even greater still.
While there is currently a demand for batteries at end of life for the rare earth metals they contain, as battery technology changes, that might not always be the case, so the stewardship scheme design must take this into account.
Current batteries are metallurgic in nature, which gives them value at end of life. Further advancements by moving to cellulose and plastic, which is currently being developed, will present new end of life challenges which scheme design needs to take into account.
Unlike most other products, an end-of-life solution is being created for large batteries before they become a problematic waste stream. This forethought means there can be push back up the pipeline to the design and manufacture stages so batteries can last longer and be easier to reuse, repurpose or recycle.
Leading the charge in New Zealand is B.I.G, which kicked off in 2019 with a working group. In July 2020 the Government declared e-waste, along with five other product categories, as a priority product under the Waste Minimisation Act 2008.
In the same month the B.I.G working group submitted the first milestone report of it phase one work to the Ministry for the Environment – a testament to the pre-emptive approach around batteries. In 2021 the final milestone report for phase one was submitted, which explained how a potential product stewardship scheme could work for large batteries in New Zealand.
In 2022 governance of the B.I.G project transferred to the not-for-profit product stewardship organisation Auto Stewardship New Zealand.
Phase two work is now underway, including improved data sets on chemistry and weight of batteries, a non-EV battery stock take, progress on a battery traceability platform, expanded stakeholder database, awareness and engagement, and the development on a business plan and financial model for the scheme.
The business plan is due to be submitted to the Ministry later this year. This second phase will take the scheme through to the point of implementation.
There’s little doubt batteries will play a big part in how we store and use energy. Through product stewardship, we can use them to create a far cleaner energy system without creating a new waste problem for future generations to deal with.
For more on the work B.I.G is doing I encourage you to visit big.org.nz