When he was 16, Eric Lundgren saw a landfill near his small hometown in northwest Washington, filled with brand-new products. Ever since, he’s been building businesses that try to stand between people and their most wasteful instincts. He started an electronics recycling company at 16. He went to prison trying to restore Windows on refurbished computers. He loaded up a junked BMW with used batteries to win a Guinness record for the longest single-charge electric vehicle drive, to make a point.
Now Lundgren is converting big, still-usable batteries from electric vehicles (EV) into backups for solar grids and other uses. If people aren’t going to use what’s right in front of them, he and his more than 100 employees will just have to do it for them. After our CEO Kyle Wiens toured the BigBattery plant in Chatsworth, Calif., and I talked to Lundgren about battery recovery, we came away with a whole new perspective on what you can do with a “used” EV battery.
“Most EV battery recyclers are shredding something that’s 50 to 70 percent reusable,” Lundgren said. “Lithium battery recycling isn’t really figured out, not at this scale. We should never be shredding something that is so valuable in our society, but that’s where these batteries are going if we don’t take it and re-use it. It’s nuts.”
Lundgren’s passion for creative reuse has taken him around the world, and into prison for copying restore CDs (more on that later). He arrives in the big battery business at an opportune time. Factories are churning out more huge batteries than ever to power more electric cars, but few come with a disposal plan after you’re done with the car. Meanwhile, the materials to make batteries continue to be scarce and problematic.
Most cars are wrecked, traded in, or discarded long before their batteries actually wear out. Even if they use up their typical 100,000-mile warranty, EVs are typically replaced with around 80 percent of their battery capacity remaining. That means thousands of use cycles remain. Some of the individual modules inside the battery may have worn down differently, too. And because EV batteries are in high demand, manufacturers are often buying many more of them on contract than will actually go into cars, creating a surplus they’re not ready to rework.
But vehicle battery modules are particularly useful at backing up power grids, whether at utility scale or for individual home or business use. MIT researchers found that cycling 80-percent-capacity EV batteries gently between 15 and 65 percent charge in a solar grid was a safe, efficient way to keep constant power flowing. If the batteries cost 60 percent or less of new-battery prices, a McKinsey study suggests a 30 to 70 percent total savings over using new batteries. While those what-if studies were researched and released, BigBattery was already in the process of turning 280,000 Nissan Leaf battery packs into 40,000 backup power blocks.
If Lundgren’s employees weren’t Minecraft-ing battery blocks into new formats, the batteries would likely be harvested for valuable materials. Recouping cobalt, nickel, copper, and lithium from batteries is a growing industry. Closed-loop giants Redwood Materials and ERI are joining up to do it, and soon-to-be-publicly-traded Li-Cycle touts a 95 percent recovery rate. It’s a much better practice than mining, but it’s still only a fraction of the utility of slightly-used, very big batteries.
“Our society is destroying usable batteries when it should be creating second-life applications,” Lundgren said, “We should not be destroying batteries that could be re-used for another 10 years. We see a proprietary case and treat it as garbage … proprietary is not sustainable.”
Lundgren has been harvesting America’s cast-offs since he was 16, when he took in and refurbished his hometown bank’s cast-off computers. In 2002 he founded Environmental Computer Associates in Los Angeles. Later he spent five years in China’s recycling and manufacturing channels, refurbished workstations and other corporate cast-offs in Washington state. At a time when Tesla’s pricey new models were touting their 300-mile range, Lundgren took the batteries from Nintendo systems, cable boxes, and other cast-offs and wired them into a world-record-holding 1,000-mile-range EV.
And then there were the restore discs. To make refurbished computers usable again, Lundgren made thousands of copies of the discs that PC makers typically shipped with their computers to reset them. While they technically install Windows, they’re all but useless without an official license key. Microsoft testified otherwise, and convinced a judge that the disks, which Microsoft does not sell, were worth $700,000.
Lundgren received a 15-month federal prison sentence. He served 12 months with good behavior, then immediately got to work on car batteries, an obsession and business he’d already dug into before prison—and kept planning during his time inside.
BigBattery pays, rather than charges, companies to take away their unused or returned batteries—the only way to ensure sustainable reuse and recycling. Most of BigBattery’s supply comes from manufacturers’ overstock, but they also take in secondhand car, e-bike, and scooter batteries. Then BigBattery’s 130 employees break them down and recombine them.
First, five high-voltage engineers examine and remove the bus bars that connect rows of modules. After that, workers trained to work with low-voltage devices disassemble the modules, connect them for voltage/cycle testing (many of them have smart battery sensors that provide the information freely), and recombine them in new battery packs for RVs, forklifts, golf carts, cellphone towers, and other products that can make use of them.
Many of those battery markets, Lundgren says, had been served until recently by lead-acid batteries. High-capacity lithium-ion batteries provide more range and easier, safer charging. The same goes for batteries in sailboats, RVs, forklifts, and cellphone towers. These industries remained saddled with old battery technology, Lundgren said, while prices were high and bigger manufacturers were buying up all the supply. BigBattery’s goal, Lundgren says, is to make the newest battery tech available more affordable for many more markets.
Repurposing battery modules from old EVs into new golf cart batteries might not be what most people think of when they hear about “green jobs,” “clean tech,” or other green buzzwords. But getting our hands dirty—saving usable objects before they reach the town landfill—is just as important as manufacturing new solar panels and windmills. Someone like Lundgren needs to be free to point out, and profit from, our single-use thinking.