You know those Final Destination movies? Those movies revolve around these absurdly improbable and convoluted Rube Goldbergian accidents that kill off the main characters. That’s sort of how the recent increase in car batteries seems–the result of a starting circumstance that probably wouldn’t make you think of car batteries. In this case, it’s warmer winters.
Here’s what’s happening. Thanks to recent winters being the warmest on record, less car batteries are dying from the cold. That sounds like good news, right? Batteries are lasting longer!
The problem is that the lead-acid battery industry relies on recycling the lead from old batteries to make new ones. In fact, according to Reuters, nearly 90 percent of America’s lead output comes from recycled lead-acid batteries.
And, even better, car batteries account for around 80 percent of the demand for lead. It’s almost a closed-loop system there, like trading scrimshaw for whale blubber or something.
Currently, with the mild winters giving all those old batteries a chance to hang on just a bit longer, the supply of lead for new batteries is scarce, and that means the price of lead is going up, which means the price of car batteries is going up.
As a battery recycler told Reuters,
“This year we are seeing such a slack in the number of batteries coming through the salvage end that it is absolutely devastating to the industry. It’s driving the price up to where nobody is going to make any money on it at all.”
Compared to 2011, shipments of replacement batteries have fallen almost 11 percent. The price of dead batteries has at the same time risen from around 35¢/lb last year to 40-45¢ this year.
Interestingly, this is all happening as the price of lithium-ion batteries, a much more energy-dense battery chemistry, drops. The biggest advantage of old-school car batteries has been that they’re still cheaper than lithium-ion batteries. Well, that, and they’re less likely to explode.
Maybe this will finally push carmakers to use lighter lithium-ion batteries? Or are they still married to things not exploding on cars so much?