It has been only 13 years since the first mainstream electric vehicle – the Nissan Leaf – arrived in America. In that relatively short time, the Leaf has been joined by more than forty other battery-electric vehicles, and last year, almost 1.2 million electric vehicles were sold in America. The electric vehicle is still in its infancy, but its numbers continue to grow, accounting for 7.6 percent of total vehicles sold.
Electric cars may be more expensive to purchase than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, but EV ownership has clear benefits. Daily operating costs are lower, there are no tailpipe emissions, and, for the most part, maintenance costs are minimal. However, significant unexpected expenses can arise, primarily if the battery needs to be replaced.
At the start, it’s important to point out that the odds of replacing the battery in an electric vehicle are rather low. According to a study by Recurrent, the need to replace the battery pack only occurs in about 1.5 percent of EVs. The study also showed that the early production Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S were on the high end of the average, but this isn’t surprising since these are the oldest electric cars on the road.
As the Department of Energy points out, while the advanced batteries in electric vehicles are designed for long life, they will wear out eventually. However, the DOE’s predictive modeling from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows current EV batteries will likely last between 12 and 15 years in moderate climates and between eight and 12 years in more extreme temperatures. Based on this, most automakers provide a battery pack warranty for up to 10 years or 120,000 miles.
While the odds of replacing the battery in your electric vehicle are low, issues that require a replacement can still occur. Older batteries will eventually degrade to the point of being untenable for use in an EV – a problem more likely with buying an older used EV than with a newer model. Batteries can also be damaged in an accident – even a minor collision could cause significant damage to the battery pack, necessitating a replacement.
It is also possible for an EV battery to have a flaw originating in production that requires a recall, which happened with the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Hyundai Kona Electric. Luckily, with this issue, the manufacturer covers the replacement cost, even if the vehicle is out of warranty.
The cost of an EV battery replacement can vary depending on the size of the battery and its chemical composition. Some materials are more expensive to obtain than others, affecting the bottom line. But the good news is that the battery replacement cost has dropped significantly in the last few years. According to the DOE, the cost of a lithium-ion EV battery was 89 percent lower in 2022 than it was in 2008, and this trend is continuing as production volume increases and battery technology advances. Still, even with the drop in costs for EV battery packs, the cost to replace a battery pack could range from around $7,000 to nearly $30,000.
While some reasons for battery replacement – accidents or overall age – are out of the owner’s control, there are some things that an EV owner can do to extend the life of their EV battery.
The age of the battery pack is not the only factor in it failing or falling to outputs that are too low for electric vehicle use. The number of times a battery is charged can affect how quickly it degrades; the more times charging cycles a battery goes through, the quicker it will begin to lose power. Allowing a battery to come close to full discharge and then charging it to 100 percent can also harm its life.
Most experts recommend not letting the battery fall below 20 percent and not charging it above 80 percent to extend its life. Battery packs will also last longer when charged slower – DC fast chargers can be convenient when range needs to be added quickly, but multiple uses of a fast charger will reduce battery life.
So why are EV batteries so expensive? The high costs are primarily due to the raw materials needed to build them. Rare metals like nickel, cobalt, lithium, and manganese are challenging to source and expensive to mine, but they are integral to current battery production. With lithium used in batteries for high-performance electronic devices and electric vehicles, demand can cause shortages, further driving up the costs.
One way companies are looking at reducing battery costs is via recycling. With many components and raw materials that make EV batteries difficult and expensive to obtain, they still have considerable value, even if the battery is no longer functioning. Different companies use different methods, but the basic premise is that the battery materials are separated and refined, then sold back into the market to produce new batteries. Most companies specializing in this process claim to recover up to 95 percent of the raw materials, including cobalt, nickel, and lithium.
The process of separating battery components is quite complex, and there are still just a few companies in the world that do this. However, many of the car companies that are building EVs are looking at not only battery production but recycling as well. Ford plans to eventually recycle batteries at its new BlueOval City complex, while Mercedes-Benz has announced plans to build its own battery recycling plant in Kuppenheim, Germany. Tesla also recycles batteries on its own, claiming to recover 92 percent of the battery’s raw materials.
As EV battery technology improves and less expensive materials are used in their composition, prices should continue to come down. Costs should be reduced further as battery recycling becomes more viable.