Finding ways to store renewable energy to support decarbonization, such as with lithium-ion batteries, is increasingly important in the power industry. However, unlike power plants that generate for more than 50 years, lithium-ion batteries have a relatively short life span: 15-20 years. As the energy storage market continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, so will the volume of lithium-ion batteries reaching the ends of their lives. We need to immediately start considering what to do when those times come.

Understanding the Starting Point

Utility-scale storage using lithium-ion batteries is relatively new, so industrywide disposal guidelines haven’t been enacted. Like the batteries in a computer or cellphone, the lithium-ion battery modules used in large-scale energy storage projects cannot simply be thrown away. The components that comprise battery chemistry, like cobalt, nickel, manganese and electrolyte chemicals, can be harmful if they reach the soil and groundwater.

Instead, these modules need to be disposed of as hazardous materials. This is a complex, expensive process that requires each module to be disassembled by trained professionals and packaged and labeled according to regulations. The packages are then transported to the disposal facility by rail, truck or vessel — all while maintaining safety protocols to mitigate thermal runaway risks.

And although this process, if executed safely and efficiently, does dispose of these end-of-life batteries, it also disposes of the critical raw materials within them. Many of the key components of lithium-ion batteries are not limitless resources. Some, such as cobalt, are found and mined almost exclusively in unstable, foreign regions. This can put supply and cost at risk, which is why the topic of recycling lithium-ion batteries is gaining steam.

Energizing a New Path Through Uncertainty

Recycling large-scale lithium-ion battery modules follows the same process as hazardous waste disposal; however, instead of ending up at disposal facilities, the disassembled batteries are transported to recycling facilities. There, the valuable components are harvested and used to build new lithium-ion batteries.

The potential benefits of this recycling process to recover and reuse valuable raw materials are boundless. These raw materials represent more than half of the cost to produce a lithium-ion battery, so reuse from recycled batteries could lower manufacturing costs. If recycling becomes mainstream, it could also help reduce the quantity of these hazardous materials entering landfills and could reduce the need to mine raw materials in unstable areas.

While the potential value of recycling lithium-ion batteries is clear, the process and expense still are not. It’s a relatively new approach, and very few active recycling companies specialize in accommodating the large quantity of module-sized batteries used in battery storage applications and electric vehicles. In addition, many types of lithium-ion battery chemistry exist, and each module can contain multiple elements to be recovered and recycled — significantly complicating the development of effective and adaptable recycling infrastructure. Add to that the simple fact that hazardous disposal is less expensive than recycling right now, and it’s clear that the challenges are many.

However, one could argue the same challenges applied to the development of lithium-ion batteries and energy storage in the recent past. Until research, innovation and technology advancements met the need, batteries were too expensive for the large-scale adoption we are witnessing now.

Room for improvement is possible — and necessary. According to research from the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, 11 million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries are expected to reach the ends of their service lives between now and 2030. And, at this time, less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. To avoid turning today’s decarbonized energy into tomorrow’s environmental waste, discussions around proper and beneficial lithium-ion battery disposal need to happen now — and recycling should remain top of mind.


Lithium-ion batteries have become the technology of choice for utility-scale energy storage configurations. Learn how manufacturers and the utility industry are addressing battery safety challenges amid ongoing development improvements.

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Bailey Semeniuk, PE, is a senior structural engineer and project manager at Burns & McDonnell specializing in battery storage system projects. Her structural engineering experience also encompasses structural analysis, detailed design and construction of industrial projects in the power generation field.