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Life After the Volt: GM Plans to Extend Battery Use

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author photo by Autotrader September 2010

It seems we can anticipate a future buzzing with electric cars. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle are in the vanguard, bringing a new way of doing things to the motoring world. But looking further ahead, there's the thorny issue of what to do with all those batteries once they reach the end of their useful automotive life.

General Motors, maker of the Chevy Volt, thinks it might have found a solution. In a joint project with a Swiss company, the ABB Group, GM is exploring the possibilities of storing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar, helping to augment the power grid, creating back-ups for communities struck by weather-related power outages, and selling energy to companies looking to buy it at cheaper, off-peak times.

The lithium-ion batteries in a Volt (which can propel the car for up to 40 miles before needing a recharge, or before the onboard engine kicks in) are under warranty for eight years/100,000 miles. They may work well in the car for up to 10 years, and after that they could be used in other applications for another 10 years. "It's the responsible thing to do," said Micky Bly, GM's executive director of things electrical.

It also makes financial sense. A second career means these batteries – that are expensive to produce in the first place – are more economically viable, as well as postponing the time when they will have to be recycled. "There is a cost burden for recycling them today," said Bly. Nissan – with a possible second EV, the Townpod, waiting in the wings – is following a similar path.

No one yet knows the exact cost benefit to Volt or Leaf buyers. The amount they may get in the future for their old batteries may not be enough to swing an undecided customer, but it's another entry into the credit column. Of course there's also the exponential rate of technological change to consider. In 10 years' time, lithium-ion batteries may be as quaint as paraffin lamps are today.

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Life After the Volt: GM Plans to Extend Battery Use - Autotrader