Old Volt batteries – out of the car, into the home?

GM says it wants to have a half-million cars that run on electricity on the road by 2017. That’s a lot of carbon avoided, but it’s also a lot of what will someday be batteries no longer able to power vehicles.

Thankfully, there might be hope those batteries can become something other than nasty waste.

For more than two years, the automaker and the Swiss power and automation giant ABB have been scheming ways to reuse the battereies. In 2011, the companies said they were close to building a 50-kilowatt-hour prototype that would combine old Volt batteries and an electric power inverter – and now they’ve done it.

Modular unit capable of providing two hours of electricity needed by three to five average American homes (image via GM)

The companies last week showed a prototype that put out 25 kilowatts of power and store 50 kWh (just as they’d targeted) to power an off-grid structure set up for the San Francisco event “Electrification Experience.” GM described the demo:

(T)he energy storage system was run in a “remote power back-up” mode where 100 percent of the power for the facility came from Volt batteries through ABB’s Energy Storage Inverter system. A similar application could one day be used to power a group of homes or small commercial buildings during a power outage, allow for storage of power during inexpensive periods for use during expensive peak demand, or help make up for gaps in solar, wind or other renewable power generation.

Several things make this second us of Volt batteries especially important. First, there’s the simple reality that when the batteries no longer become viable for use in a Volt, “only 30 percent or less of its life has been used,” according to GM. Second, there’s a relevancy issue here: Post-Sandy, we’re all a heck of a lot more aware – or ought to be – of the value of backup power. Third, any energy storage scheme has the potential to make renewable energy both more attractive and valuable.

The system demoed in San Francisco consisted of five used Volt lithium-ion batteries. When installed into a Volt, a single battery is asked to power a 111-kW motor and store 16 kWh of energy, so the the 25-kW, 50-kWh specs for the system using five old batteries seems quite realistic — yet it’s enough, the companies said, to provide two hours of electricity for three to five average American homes, the companies said.

“The ABB-GM Volt battery system is the world’s first use of car batteries as possible back-up power for homes and other commercial uses,” Allen Burchett, ABB’s senior vice president for business development in North America, said in a statement. “We will be installing it on the grid soon to complete the technical evaluation, and this will tell us all what smart grid applications are possible, like back-up power, reducing energy cost, strengthening utilities’ distribution systems and storing surplus renewable energy.”

Pete Danko, EarthTechling