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What’s sending first-generation electric cars to an early grave?

caption: Dozens of Teslas and other electric vehicles await repairs at Medlock and Sons, one of the few shops that works on EV batteries.
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Dozens of Teslas and other electric vehicles await repairs at Medlock and Sons, one of the few shops that works on EV batteries.
Monica Nickelsburg

Christine Barnes was an early electric car adopter. She bought her cherry red Tesla Model S in 2013, just a year after that model hit the market. She loved the car, and planned to have it for years — until it reached an untimely death.

Barnes had driven up from Portland to Seattle to visit her daughter. When it was time to head home, she turned on the car and was met with a blank screen. Tesla ran diagnostics and discovered the battery was fried.

“They said, ‘Well, it needs to be replaced and that's expensive,’” Barnes recalled.

Expensive meant as much as $20,000, the car's blue book value at the time.

“We thought about spending the money just because it was a perfectly good car other than this happening,” Barnes said. “There was nothing wrong with it, and I loved that car. But then, we decided that was just not smart.”

RELATED: Why Tesla's woes signal trouble for the electric car industry

Barnes isn’t alone. A growing number of early electric car adopters are scrapping or replacing their cars when batteries that are no longer under warranty go haywire. Repairing batteries can be dangerous. It’s more expensive and technical than working on gas engines, and there are very few technicians trained to do the work. Carmakers, like Tesla, often recommend full replacements, rather than trying to extend the life of an older battery. That’s leading some drivers, like Barnes, to get rid of otherwise perfectly good cars.

Tesla didn’t respond to questions for this story.

RELATED: Hear the full story on the latest episode of KUOW's Economy podcast, "Booming" below. Subscribe on your favorite podcast player.

Unlike the EVs ending up in junk yards, Barnes’s car took an unexpected journey, one that could mean a greener future for batteries if some of the early growing pains are worked out.

Barnes’s husband called up Carl Medlock. He owns Medlock and Sons, one of the few shops in the country that repairs EV batteries.

caption: Austin Medlock works on a Tesla battery.
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Austin Medlock works on a Tesla battery.
Monica Nickelsburg

The White Center facility is unlike any garage that services gas cars. The ground is so clean, it squeaks as Medlock's sons bounce between a rainbow of Teslas waiting to be given a second lease on life. Outside, dozens more Teslas and other EVs pack the parking lot and line the streets that extend from the shop.

Medlock told Barnes he thought he could repair the battery, but not any time soon.

“Any Model S that has been supercharged a lot, early ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, those cars, their batteries are failing,” Medlock said. “We have like 350-plus appointments for Model S battery repairs, and we just don't have time to go any faster.”

Instead of waiting, Barnes sold the car to Medlock. He bought it for $2,500, far less than the blue book value — but at least it was something. She decided to lease her next Tesla, a Model Y. Medlock said, eventually, he was able to repair the battery despite Tesla’s diagnosis.

RELATED: Want an EV? Washington state offers $45 million in rebates

“Tesla told them it needed a battery,” Medlock said, “because Tesla only replaces the whole thing. They don't do component replacement like we do.”

If there were more technicians trained to work on batteries, the life of older EVs could be extended, said Gary Fantozzi, director of automotive programs at Shoreline Community College. His department trains future mechanics for carmakers like General Motors and Tesla.

“We could start changing out small sections of those batteries that are degrading on us and allow the battery to go longer,” he said.

But Fantozzi said carmakers aren’t particularly motivated to invest in that kind of workforce training, and many of them don’t allow mechanics to work on the batteries at all.

“There's only a couple of manufacturers out there that actually allow you to get into the batteries and actually do some of the repairs,” he said.

Fantozzi believes that there isn’t much financial incentive for carmakers to work on batteries if customers -- faced with the high costs of replacing them -- are willing to buy new cars instead.

RELATED: More than 20% of new cars purchased in Washington state are electric

Part of the problem, Fantozzi said, is just how quickly this young industry is growing. The urgency of the climate crisis, combined with government incentives and regulations, are fueling an EV boom, especially in Washington state. New registrations for electric cars and plug-in hybrids reached record levels in Washington last year, and the state saw the biggest increase in EV market share in 2023 of any state, according to an Alliance of Automotive Innovation report.

The industry is starting to catch up. Newer batteries have better cooling systems to deal with frequent supercharging, and they’re expected to last longer. Tech companies, including several in Washington, are racing to develop better batteries. But training a workforce that can actually repair those batteries, and figuring out how to recycle and dispose of them, are problems that still need to be solved.

There’s an established industry devoted to breaking down gas cars after they’re dead and getting the most out of their parts. But EVs will require a new system. Many batteries currently in use can’t be recycled because of the way they’re designed and have to be disposed of like toxic waste. Those that can be recycled have to be transported to one of the few facilities that can handle them, which is difficult. They're too heavy to fly, so they have to be driven. The process is so resource-intensive, it typically costs less to mine materials and build a new battery, according to reporting from Wired.

caption: Electric vehicle batteries are larger and heavier than gas engines.
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Electric vehicle batteries are larger and heavier than gas engines.
Monica Nickelsburg

A report commissioned by the Washington state legislature found “changes in policies, regulations, battery chemistry mix, cost of transportation, cost of recycling, and market value of critical minerals at any time could create a situation where EV batteries reach a negative value.”

RELATED: Electric vehicle sales accelerate in Washington state

If that happens, “abandonment could become more common,” according to the report. In other words, until it makes financial sense to recycle EV batteries, they could be thrown out unsafely.

Despite these problems, climate experts agree that electric vehicles are still better for the environment than gas-powered cars. They are slightly more emissions-intensive to build, but their lifetime carbon footprint is far lower than gas vehicles.

But that benefit is greater the longer a driver holds onto a car, which means finding a way to get more life out of batteries is also an important step on the path to a greener transportation future.

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