Replacing EV Batteries: Your Costs Will Vary

By · June 19, 2012

Nissan Leaf

There are questions about the life of the LEAF's 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Yes, electric cars are selling slowly, and one central reason for that is consumers' fear that the battery packs won’t last, and then will cost a fortune to replace—or dramatically lower the value of the car. Is that a false fear? I’d love to be able to dispel the whole question right here and now, but there simply isn’t enough information to do that with confidence.

The questions need to be addressed, because battery replacement costs is one of three key considerations why 57 percent of Americans cited in a USA Today/Gallup Poll say they wouldn’t buy an EV. The other two are range per charge and recharge time, both things that will probably get satisfactorily addressed before battery replacement cost is laid to rest as a concern. (The poll might have been more objective if it hadn’t defined an EV as “an electric car that you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time.”)

First Battery Wear

Some owners have already put 30,000 to 40,000 miles on their LEAFs, and we’re getting the first reports of battery power loss. The LEAF has a 12-bar indicator and Nissan says it’s seen the loss of a bar in “a few cases.” Mike Ferry, the transportation programs manager at the California Center for Sustainable Energy, says he’s seen it in exactly one LEAF (with 40,000 miles on it).

Leaf bars

Fast charging may turn out to be a factor in battery life. Total capacity of the battery even when fully charged can be reduced.

Nissan just opined that its LEAF battery pack will have 80 percent charge left after five years, and 70 percent after 10 years. That’s fine, but when does the pack become a boat anchor? To be fair, these packs will probably never get thrown unceremoniously into a landfill. The lithium in them can be reused, and as John O’Dell writes at Edmunds.com, EV batteries are 70 to 100 percent recyclable, and companies such as Umicore and Toxco are already gearing up to handle the recovery of their valuable metals. The catch is that lithium isn’t very valuable now, about $30 per pound, but that should change as volumes increase and demand for it grows.

Brett Williams, a senior researcher in electric drive energy at the University of California, Berkeley, told me that EV packs are likely to have 70 to 80 percent of storage capacity left when they’re ready to be retired from auto use. O’Dell agrees with that figure. “Conventional wisdom,” he said, “is that remaining life of around 75 percent to 80 percent renders them not useful for automotive, but still plenty useful for stationary storage.” OK, so then when the car is just five years old it will need a complete new battery pack? Not so fast.

Replacing Cells, Not Packs

Simon Sproule, a Nissan vice president, says that it’s unlikely that whole LEAF packs will need to be replaced when the magic 75 to 80 percent threshold is reached. Instead, he said, EV medics can find bad cells and replace them, at a cost of hundreds of dollars, not thousands. I hadn’t heard that before, but LEAF salesman Paul Scott tells me that it’s possible to “replace certain underperforming cells rather than the whole pack.”

Ferry says that not all packs are designed for the replacement of individual cells or modules, though the LEAF pack definitely is. Omo Velev of AeroVironment, who consults with the California Center, said that EV packs are designed to maintain even degradation across all cells, but in practice some go bad faster than others. If enough of them do that, the utility of the while pack is compromised.

Cells can go bad, Velev said, through:

* Very small changes in cell chemistry and “micro-impurities” that compromise life;

* Mechanical imperfections, due to poor seals, loss of electrolyte or other factors;

* Environmental conditions related to the cell’s position in the car, resulting in significant differences in temperature and vibration. If it’s individual cells going bad, Velev said they can be replaced, allowing the whole unit to be “rejuvenated” to an approximation of its output when new.

Also, certain lithium chemistries, including iron phosphate, degrade in a linear fashion. In other words, the lights on the battery health indicator will go out in evenly spaced intervals. But the lithium manganate in the LEAF is less linear. A Nissan rep told Green Car Reports that its battery is non-linear, losing—like many other packs—more capacity early in life. “The curve flattens over time,” Nissan said.

A Second Life

Meanwhile, experiments in using batteries for utility back-up duty are ongoing. Ferry says that its four-bay EV battery test station at the University of California, San Diego is putting two A123 and one Enerdel pack through its paces, and that they’re producing approximately 120 kilowatts of power that’s being absorbed into UCSD’s microgrid.

According to Ferry, the tested packs are several years old, but haven’t been through many cycles yet. “It will get interesting when the packs reach the age you’d expect them to have when they’re pulled out of a car,” he said. EV packs can supply backup power to the grid, but Ferry said that’s un-critical duty that under-stresses the packs and could be performed by lead-acid. Alternative duty includes grid functions like frequency regulation and voltage support, and that’s taxing and might lead to shorter battery shelf life. But getting that kind of information is what the UCSD test is all about.

And how much will the LEAF pack cost to replace, if the whole thing does go bad? We’ve seen company cost estimates of between $9,000 and $18,000, but that’s for very early packs. Technical improvements and economies of scale should bring that down.

Comments

· Andy Chu (not verified) · 2 years ago

In addition to recycling lithium, some of the other high-value items include the copper and other metals in the battery. Linda Gaines at Argonne has published extensively on this topic.

On the point of whether cells or modules might be individually replaced, it depends on the battery design. In some designs, cells are welded together or to bus bars. This makes it more difficult to replace an individual cell. Even if it is possible to replace an individual cell, this is not likely something that would be done at your local dealer. So, if you had a bad cell that was affecting the battery performance, they would likely replace the module, then leave it to someone else to extract the value out of it, whether it is using it for a stationary application or refurbishing it for re-use.

· · 2 years ago

if it hadn’t defined an EV as “an electric car that you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time.”

What an odd way to phrase it. I can only drive my gasoline powered car a limited number of miles at one time. Even if I get a diesel vehicle that will do 1000 miles on a tank, I have to stop and rest, eat, go to the bathroom, etc.

The bad news on recycling (as in, melt down and re-make type recycling) is that lithium is likely to get cheaper per pound, rather than more expensive. The good news is that stationary power applications, particularly things like grid voltage support, are likely to get much more popular as power companies discover how cost-effective this is.

· C-Sqrl (not verified) · 2 years ago

Read the book Internal Combustion by Edwin Black.

· · 2 years ago

First, Nissan needs to acknowledge that the issue with the Leaf battery pack is NOT just a few isolated cases, but in fact has manifested in MANY vehicles that operate in hotter environments like Arizona and Texas.

Second, Nissan needs to make an official statement as to when it can be expected that this 20-30% degradation will take place. Will it be in the first year...the second, or slowly over time as is implied by their verbiage? There is a big difference between losing all of the capacity in the first year or two and losing maybe 3-5% per year over a course of several. The consumer should have this information available BEFORE making a decision on whether or not an EV is right for them.

I also have to agree with Andy Chu. So far as the Leaf goes, I just don't see the consumer benefiting much (if any) from individual cell/module replacement. And even if this were the case, by the time you paid their dealer to disassemble the car, remove the pack, diagnose and replace under-performing modules and button it all back up, the cost would not be "in the hundreds" as the article states. Maybe with some of the configurations that are 10 or more years in the future this would be possible, but not anytime soon- certainly not within the life of current Leafs.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

Seriously, How may times have you bought a ICE car and asked how much will it be to replace the engine?

Why are so many people just trying to make up reasons to keep spewing pollution out of a tail pipe.. Evey time someone says to me are you concerned about replacing the batteries in my LEAF I ask them if they are concerned about replacing there Engine or Transmission or even the Oil, Water etc in there ICE car.

And Remember you cannot Recycle your cars engine.. But when my LEAF Battery back is no longer viable for driving , I will simply add it to my Batter back up that Stores my Solar power that is charging my LEAF and Running my Home..

When you can Recycle your ICE Engine and use it to store something later on, then you can compare. Until then EV's are here to stay and Work very well .. !

Keep you Tail pipe pollution out of my lungs!. Support an EVer.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

Seriously, How may times have you bought a ICE car and asked how much will it be to replace the engine?

Why are so many people just trying to make up reasons to keep spewing pollution out of a tail pipe.. Evey time someone says to me are you concerned about replacing the batteries in my LEAF I ask them if they are concerned about replacing there Engine or Transmission or even the Oil, Water etc in there ICE car.

And Remember you cannot Recycle your cars engine.. But when my LEAF Battery back is no longer viable for driving , I will simply add it to my Batter back up that Stores my Solar power that is charging my LEAF and Running my Home..

When you can Recycle your ICE Engine and use it to store something later on, then you can compare. Until then EV's are here to stay and Work very well .. !

Keep you Tail pipe pollution out of my lungs!. Support an EVer.

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous,
While I agree with your assertion that nobody asks how much the new transmission or engine are likely to cost you at around the 100K mile point, both engines and transmissions are often rebuilt to be used again. If not, they are definitely recyclable. Nearly all automobiles since the '50's have been nearly 100% recycled. This is one of the reasons Pittsburgh and Allentown, PA and other parts of our country that supported the iron industry have been in such financial decline since then. Nobody is buying iron and steel as much.
This, of course, is a huge, yet mostly unknown, ecological feather in the caps of the auto industry since it has avoided so much iron mining and coal use and production.

· Al (not verified) · 2 years ago

In my opinion, batteries are going to get cheaper in the future. I can imagine that there are other technologies being developed at the moment other than Lithium.

Let's put things in perspective:
In the first 30,000 miles of the life of a gas powered car, it would need:
* 3 to 6 oil and oil filter changes;
* maybe spark plug changes if long life spark plugs are not being used;
* 1 or 2 fuel filter changes;
* 1 or 2 air filter changes;
* 2 to 3 coolant changes;
* possibly 2 brake pad changes and brake rotor changes (depends on material and driving style) since there is no regen braking with a gas only car;
* possibly a timing belt change;
* might start seeing engine oil leaks which need to be fixed;
and lots of maintenance things that a gas engine requires.

Then, when you need to fill up gas, you have to find a gas station to fill up. With an electric car, you can charge up at the convenience of your home and not need to make a special trip, plug electricity is cheaper than gas for most people. If you have solar, electricity will cost you nothing - just the initial purchase and installation costs of the solar panels.

All this costs money and time. Time is something you don't get back.

If a battery starts to degrade after 30,000, then you have had 30,000 miles of not having to do the crap I mentioned above (like oil changes etc). Sure, batteries might degrade, but so do gas engines. What's new about that?

· tableround (not verified) · 2 years ago

@caffeinekid
You should crawl under one of those EVs. It is just a matter of undoing a few screws, lowering the 300+ battery pack. Then, using a diagnostic tool find which cells have gone bad. Replace those with good cells, plug it in, raise it up and reset the screws. Done. Nissan had a travel exhibit in Detroit and showed how easy this was. (of course, not for the average joe, but any vehicle technician, with training, can do the job.)

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

9-18k for a battery change??
there is no sense in buying ev at this prices. First you will pay for leaf 7-10k more than similar gasoline vehicles, second after 4 years you wont be able to sell it as a used car (because battery issue), and 3rd your savings on a electricity compared to the gas are 10k or less.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 2 years ago

Nissan has a 9 year warranty on their battery. If it really needs to be replaced within that time, it won't cost the consumer anything. The only question is what will constitute a sufficient reason for replacement? <70% capacity?

· · 2 years ago

@Anonymous,

As Nissan has proven in the recent desert cases, capacity is not warrantied except against sudden loss. Only power output is covered.

@Anonymous (the second-to-last),

You are missing a couple of key points.
1) The battery is comprised of 48 modules, each can be replaced for a much lower cost (assuming the degradation is not uniform)
2) You are making a huge assumption about the value of the car in 4 years. This may or may not pan out.
3) Battery prices have already started to come down, and will continue to do so.
4) What you consider a "similar gasoline vehicle", I consider not even close. The Leaf is in the high $20k's to buy. If you consider performance, comfort, etc, it is easily comparable to a car that's $7-10k MORE expensive.
5) "There is no sense in buying ev at this prices" - much more goes into a buy decision that simple payback. Take a hard, honest look at yourself and your friends/family. Can you honestly say that for every one of the cars that have been purchased by this group, the decision has been based purely on lifetime operating cost?

· Leonard Muise (not verified) · 1 year ago

All vehicles have range limitations, not just EVs.

For an informed consumer, the range limitation is only a problem in two situations: when the manufacturer does not provide an accurate range estimate, and the manufacturer is not held accountable for severe declines in the range.

Overall, I think it's a good, solid car. Maybe Nissan knew that the batteries would deteriorate quickly, maybe they didn't. Either way, how are they going to get long-term brand value from being the first major car manufacturer to offer an affordable EV vehicle -- if they turn their stand behind their product?

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