Driving electric mobility with the circular economy. Experts call for circular economy for batteries
Munich, 14 October 2020
Taking the first steps towards a climate-friendly, resource-efficient circular economy has perhaps become even more important since the onset of the coronavirus crisis. The Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland has used the example of electric car batteries to illustrate how we can achieve this transformation by 2030. It has formulated a series of proposals and recommendations for government, science and industry that are essentially aimed at building a system of products and services that maximises value creation throughout a battery’s entire life cycle.
“We are beginning the transformation to a circular economy in which the value retention of the products and materials we use is optimised in order to save resources. To do this, we must plan for a closed-loop life cycle before and during the product development and manufacture stages”, explains Susanne Kadner, Director of the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland.
The Initiative is working with actors from science, industry and civil society to show what this could mean in practice for individual sectors. Published today, its first report describes what a circular economy might look like for the traction batteries used to drive electric vehicles.
Meeting society’s high expectations of electric mobility
According to Umicore’s Christian Hagelüken, co-chair of the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland’s “Traction Batteries” working group, “A circular model is key to ensuring that traction batteries and thus electric mobility in general are able to meet society’s high expectations in the context of the mobility and energy transitions.” In particular, this will involve smart integration of batteries with the electricity grid, prolongation of their service life through repairs and refurbishment, reuse for other applications such as stationary electricity storage and high-quality recycling.
Martin Stuchtey is Managing Partner of SYSTEMIQ, acatech’s partner in the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland. As he explains, “Circularity strengthens the economic and environmental benefits of electric mobility. The circular economy is thus vital to achieving the goal of getting several million electric vehicles onto Germany’s roads by 2030.”
The integration of traction batteries into functioning closed-loop systems promises to significantly reduce their environmental footprint, for example by delivering a reduction of up to 40% in the batteries’ CO2 emissions over the course of their service life. The relevant measures could also boost key battery material availability by up to 10% by 2030 and as much as 40% by 2050. Moreover, the use of the batteries to store electricity would add further value by allowing more renewable energy to be fed into the grid. Overall, this would mean that net costs could be reduced by up to 20% over a battery’s life cycle. The report’s authors argue that this could help to make the breakthrough for electric mobility.
A common vision for a circular economy for traction batteries
Arno Kwade of TU Braunschweig is co-chair of the “Traction Batteries” working group. As he explains, “Prompt action is required if we are to achieve the transformation to a climate-friendly, resource-decoupled circular economy for batteries. Accordingly, our vision describes what a circular economy for batteries in Germany might look like in 2030, based on the five dimensions of regulation, material flows, technological developments, value networks and implementation within companies.”
As well as measures to increase productivity during the battery’s service life, the vision outlined by the report’s authors also includes the comprehensive collection of all used batteries, refurbishment to prolong the batteries’ service life, high-quality recycling and, where possible, a second life in other products. The widespread use of digital technologies such as battery passports, the Industrial Internet of Things and automated production and disassembly technologies will facilitate the transformation from the current circular waste management model to a productive circular economy.
Over the next three years, it will therefore be necessary to lay the foundations so that the relevant decisions can be taken and investments prepared on the basis of evidence-based knowledge, models and indicator systems. It will also be necessary for science and industry to ensure that the next generation of traction batteries and their ecosystems are developed in a manner that is compatible with circular economy principles. Universities and businesses must start training the next generation of specialists and decision makers without delay.
In the medium term, the authors call for policymakers and industry to create transparent structures that are robust enough to support the commercial scaling of the fast-growing market for end-of-life traction batteries throughout the EU. Science and industry must start delivering technological and in particular digital solutions for the circular economy without delay, for example digital product passports and digital twins. Together with support for investment, this will pave the way for circular business models.
Building on this foundation, it should be possible to achieve the breakthrough to a circular economy by 2030. Robust, efficient circular economy systems will be required at scale by this point, if not earlier, since large quantities of traction batteries will be coming to the end of their service life. These batteries will need to be collected, disassembled and efficiently recycled. Measures relating to the use of vehicle batteries for multiple purposes during their first life in vehicles (e.g. smart grid integration) should be in place by this date at the latest, in order to enable a cost-effective (charging) infrastructure and other positive cost and climate effects in the energy system. The authors conclude that if by this stage government, science and industry have also addressed the systemic potential of a circular economy for traction batteries and created a transparent regulatory framework, Germany will be well on its way towards the establishment of a circular economy.
Summing up, Thomas Weber, acatech Vice-President and co-chair of the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland, states that “The example of electric vehicle traction batteries illustrates how circular economy principles can contribute to a sustainable economic system in Europe. We now need to carry these principles over to different fields of application and ensure that they are widely adopted in practice. Ultimately, we need a circular economy if we are to meet our climate and sustainability targets, both in Germany and throughout the EU, especially in the context of the European Green Deal.”
About the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland’s “Traction Batteries” working group
In their report “Resource-Efficient Battery Life Cycles – Driving Electric Mobility with the Circular Economy”, the 21 member organisations from science, industry and civil society that make up the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland’s Traction Batteries working group present a common vision for a circular economy for traction batteries in 2030. The vision describes an attractive “battery life cycle management” growth sector that offers potential for established businesses, start-ups and employment and can play a key role in driving the energy and mobility transition. To help make this vision a reality, the working group’s report presents a roadmap together with three in-depth analyses of specific topics that address data requirements, analytical decision models and disassembly networks for the circular management of traction batteries in Europe.