What Happens to the Old Batteries in Electric Cars?

These power sources can have many uses, CR says

generic electric car with battery visible charging at public charger Photo: Getty Images

Electric cars are becoming a more viable option for many car buyers, with almost a couple of dozen models set to debut by the end of 2024. With the EV revolution in full swing, one question keeps popping up: What happens to the batteries in EVs once they wear out?

EV batteries will slowly lose capacity over time, with current EVs averaging around 2% of range loss per year. Over many years, the driving range may be noticeably reduced. EV batteries can be serviced and individual cells inside the battery can be replaced if they go bad. But there’s the risk after many years of service and several hundred thousand miles that the entire battery pack may need to be replaced if it has degraded too much. The cost can be between $5,000 and $15,000 and is akin to an engine or transmission replacement in a gas car.

The worry for most environmentally conscious people is that there isn’t a system in place to deal with these decommissioned parts. After all, lithium-ion battery packs often run the length of the car’s wheelbase, weigh close to 1,000 pounds, and are made up of toxic elements. Can they easily be recycled or are they destined to pile up in landfills?

“Electric car batteries aren’t very difficult to get rid of because even if they’ve outlasted the usefulness for an electric car, they’re still worth quite a lot to someone,” says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ senior director of auto testing. “There’s a strong demand for secondary-life batteries. It’s not like when your gas-powered engine dies and it goes to the scrapyard. For example, Nissan is using old Leaf batteries to power mobile machines in its factories around the world.”

Nissan Leaf batteries are also being used to store energy on solar grids in California, Fisher says. Once solar panels capture energy from the sun, they need to be able to store that energy. The old EV batteries may no longer be optimal for driving but they’re still capable of energy storage. 

Even as secondary-life batteries fully degrade after various uses, minerals and elements like cobalt, lithium, and nickel in them are also valuable and can be used to produce new EV batteries. 

With EV technology still in relative infancy, the only certainty is that recyclability needs to be built into the manufacturing process to ensure that EVs remain eco-friendly throughout the entire life cycle of the product. 

Despite the concern about a potential costly repair when replacing these batteries, we haven’t seen it as a common issue in our exclusive car reliability data. Such problems are rare.

This article has been adapted from an episode of Talking Cars.