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Future of transport

As electric car usage grows, what can Hong Kong do with all the old batteries?

Environment Bureau competition is inviting experts to submit “innovative and practical ideas” for deteriorated batteries; green group says officials have no clear plan on how to deal with the issue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 8:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 9:20am

Creative minds from Hong Kong and abroad are being called upon to pitch ideas for reusing old electric car batteries as the number of “EVs” on the city’s roads continues to grow.

First announced by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in his budget speech earlier this year, the International Competition on Second Life for Retired Batteries from Electric Vehicles is inviting contestants to submit “innovative and practical ideas” for deteriorated lithium-ion batteries.

“Retired EV batteries still have 70 per cent to 80 per cent of their electricity storage capacity. They have immense potential for application,” said a spokesman for the Environment Bureau, which is organising the contest. “The number of retired EV batteries is expected to increase as the popularity of EVs grows.”

Electric vehicles in Hong Kong have grown in number almost 60-fold since the end of 2010, from less than 100 to over 5,800 this July, driven largely by government incentive schemes and tax waivers.

The government competition will feature two groups – one open to all, and another for students up to or at secondary school level. Ideas will be assessed on their originality, viability and “value and impact”. A judging panel will determine the champions next June. Winners and runners-up will get to go on a sponsored visit to Germany to visit “green facilities”.

According to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a battery could become available for stationary storage once its performance has degraded by about 30 per cent.

Popular uses of old EV batteries overseas include as battery banks and grid-connected energy storage.

The paper suggested that by 2018 “second-life batteries” could cost as little as US$49 per usable kilowatt-hour to reuse, compared to new stationary batteries, which cost about US$300 per kWh.

Some green groups believe a more practical approach would be for the government to enact a producer responsibility scheme to make car dealers dispose of spent batteries more appropriately and safely.

Edwin Lau Che-feng of The Green Earth said EV batteries were classified as a type of hazardous chemical waste and had to be disposed of carefully by specialised and licensed recyclers.

“If not handled properly in a controlled environment, the impact from secondary pollution can be quite harmful,” he said.

Lau questioned whether the government had any real plans to develop a proper network for recycling spent EV batteries.

“Hybrids have been on the market for a long time. The government never really thought about what to do with all these spent batteries ... All products should be looked at in terms of their entire life cycle.”

Lau also expressed doubts about the applicability of things like battery banks in homes as they would only be clean if charged by renewable energy, which few Hong Kong people’s homes have a supply of or access to.

A 2014 Hong Kong Productivity Council report urged the government to require car dealers to come up with a battery disposal and monitoring plan during the type-approval application process, which Lau agreed with.

“The carmakers should be made responsible for the recording, tracking, collecting and ultimately recycling of the EV batteries in their cars,” the council’s report read.