Proper management of electric vehicle batteries could be a game changer

Retailer Woolworths recently announced it would be rolling out a fleet of electric panel vans in partnership with logistics company DSV in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town. Both companies should be publicly commended and encouraged to drive the transition to e-mobility in South Africa. However, there’s something that happens in the life of electric vehicle (EV) batteries that must be made known too – rather than becoming an environmental risk, managing used EV batteries properly presents an opportunity to catapult South Africa into the forefront of the circular economy.

In layman’s terms, there comes a time in every EV’s life where the weight of the battery no longer justifies the output. In other words, after many charge and discharge cycles, the battery’s output for mobility is overshadowed by its weight and it must be replaced. No big deal, one may think, just get a new one. The problem is there is no approved recycling process for lithium EV batteries.

This is not a South African phenomenon; it’s a global problem. There’s little joy in switching to e-mobility, and reducing carbon emissions on our roads, only to accumulate thousands of lithium batteries that have nowhere to go except landfills, which defeats the purpose of protecting our environment.

By investing in e-mobility, Woolworths, for example, has a golden opportunity to lead the continent and be at the forefront global of closing the circular economy loop.

Woolworths’s head of online and mobile was quoted as saying: “We will work closely with DSV and Everlectric to plan, position and negotiate the installation of … charging stations to leverage off existing renewable or solar installations co-located at the selected malls or retail locations .”

This is a brilliant move by Woolworths, because no one wants to use coal to charge electric vehicles. But not many people appreciate that renewable and solar installations need batteries. Sun and wind produce power when the natural resource is available, such as during the day and when there’s wind. If the installation did not have batteries to store the power being produced, it would not be able to supply power, for example, when there’s no sun, such as at night or during prolonged rain.

The best batteries for renewable energy installations are lithium batteries, which outperform, and are safer than, lead acid batteries. This is where the opportunity lies. The batteries that are removed from EVs at the end of their mobility life still have individual cells that can be repurposed into second life (2nd LiFe) storage batteries where weight no longer matters. These 2nd LiFe batteries have a lifespan similar to first life batteries but are superior to the first life batteries because their cells are designed for EVs, meaning they have a higher tolerance for heat and harsh operating conditions.

This is not theoretical. We work in the trenches every day and can say with confidence that these batteries could solve many, if not most, of South Africa’s energy security woes.

Companies, such as Woolworths and DSV, and Audi South Africa, whose electric prowess was made evident at the most recent Dakar Rally, have the potential to meaningfully contribute to e-mobility.

We are often approached by companies working on tenders to bring in fleets of electric vehicles or to be licensed to produce them. They contact us because one of the requirements is to demonstrate a proven and acceptable strategy of discarding EV batteries and repurposing them into high-grade 2nd LiFe storage batteries.

It’s not just EVs with four wheels

One must ask why large retailers, such as Checkers with their Checkers Sixty60 service, and Takealot and Mr D, with their thousands of delivery people, have fleets of low-output internal combustion motorcycles? Sure, they’re only 125cc engines, but they are contributing to unsustainable levels of pollution by their sheer numbers. Stop one evening, and listen to the roads in the suburbs around you and count the number of small-capacity motorcycles you hear buzzing up and down.

Imagine a country where fleets of delivery bikes are electric. The technology exists, and Woolworths is pioneering the space regarding the charging of EV vehicles using renewable installations. The same principle holds – imagine every e-bike’s battery being repurposed into a storage battery to provide back-up for solar-installation charging delivery bikes.

We don’t need to dream or imagine any more. The technology, and the expertise, exist and are ready to be hired. It requires brave brands, such as Woolworths, to take a big step for everyone else to follow, if not due to their passion for saving the environment, then because of growing pressure to invest in sustainability by reducing their carbon footprints.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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