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Major automakers are looking for new ways to drive down the cost of batteries for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. GM and Nissan, which will both start selling electric and hybrid vehicles at the end of the year, have announced partnerships that they hope will find new applications for the batteries after they’ve outlived their usefulness for powering vehicles.

Last week Nissan announced a joint venture with industrial giant Sumitomo. GM followed suit with a similar announcement this week–it’s teaming up with ABB, a leading supplier of equipment for the electrical grid. Under these partnerships, Nissan and GM will study various possible energy-storage applications for partly depleted vehicle batteries.

At the end of this year, GM will start selling the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that can drive 40 miles on the energy stored in its lithium-ion battery and 300 more on electricity generated by its gasoline engine (the car is known as a plug-in hybrid). Nissan will also deliver the Leaf sedan at the end of the year–a battery-powered car with a range of approximately 100 miles (although the range can be much lower if the heater is on and the stereo blaring).

The battery in an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid can cost about as much as a small car–$10,000 to $15,000. This fact, combined with the high cost of developing these vehicles, will make them unprofitable for several years, says Michael Omotoso, manager of the power train forecasting group at J.D. Power and Associates. So finding applications for used vehicle batteries could provide automakers with valuable additional revenue.

Automakers expect that most vehicle batteries ready for replacement will still be able to store between 50 percent and 80 percent of the energy that they could when they were brand-new. That storage capacity could be valuable for a number of applications. The batteries could be used as backup power supplies for data centers or for communities that are prone to power outages. They could also be used to help stabilize the grid, smoothing out fluctuations in supply and demand and potentially storing electricity generated by solar panels and wind farms for use during times of peak demand.

There’s not much demand for used lithium-ion automotive batteries now, Omotoso says. But demand is expected to grow as more sources of renewable energy come on line.

Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation and energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, says electric utilities are starting pilot projects that use lithium-ion batteries. But they could be ready to use them more widely by the time used batteries become available in large numbers. “The timing of this work in the auto industry is very good,” he says.

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Credit: John F. Martin for General Motors

Tagged: Energy, batteries, electric cars, GM, Volt, plug-in hybrid, lithium-ion batteries, Nissan Leaf

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