Lamar Buffalo Ranch Yellowstone National Park

I remember sitting with friends a few years ago, chatting excitedly about the influx of hybrid electric cars coming onto the market. I was overjoyed and felt like this was a sign that we were slowly but surely moving toward cleaner energy sources and away from our reliance on oil.

There was one pessimist in the group though (there always is) and he began talking about how electric cars could never truly be a positive environmental choice, because of the batteries. “These batteries are huge and they’ll need to be disposed of eventually,” he said, “If electric cars take off, landfills will be overflowing with batteries just sitting there, leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater.”

Ugh! It made me want to cry, both because of the utter pessimism of the sentiment and because I didn’t have an adequate rebuttal. He was right – wasn’t he?

Well, he might have been then, but not anymore. Not only does Toyota – maker of many electric cars, including the Camry and the Prius – have a fantastic battery recycling program in place, they’ve devised a way to almost double the life cycle of their nickel metal hydride hybrid battery packs. This is my absolute favorite kind of environmental story – where the waste product from one industry benefits another. I’ve written about it before with food waste and buses turned homeless shelters, and I’m going to add this article to the list.

Lamar Buffalo Ranch Yellowstone National Park
The Lamar Buffalo Ranch has embraced off-grid environmental stewardship. Image courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.

The initiative involves a long-standing partnership between Toyota and Yellowstone National Park, and it began with a ranger station that needed power. The Lamar Buffalo Ranch is located deep inside Yellowstone National Park, a blissful retreat far away from power lines and the hustle and bustle of city living. Since it’s so far removed, though, powering the five buildings at the ranger station proved a bit of a challenge, one that was solved by using a noisy generator system since the ranch was founded in 1907.

On may 12, however, Yellowstone National Park, in partnership wth Toyota, flipped the switch to sustainable power – call it off-grid environmental stewardship. That old noisy generator was replaced by sleek solar panels and, what do you suppose has been installed to collect all of that juicy solar power?

You got it. Hybrid car batteries. This initiative took 208 old Camry hybrid batteries and hooked them up to solar panels to store the collected power, because although the batteries had outrun their ability to power cars they still had plenty of life in them yet, and they got a second chance in Yellowstone.

The solar panel/battery pack system produces almost 68,000 KwH of power each year, enough to power six average American households a year – more than meeting the needs of the ranger station. This system is the first of its kind to store power in old car batteries, but I’d be willing to bet that it won’t be the last. This means that as the popularity of hybrid and electric cars increases, so too will other green energy sources. The waste batteries won’t be sitting in landfills, they’ll be powering our world.

I wish I could go back in time to show Pessimist Dude this story. I wish I could show him not only so I could prove that I was right (who doesn’t love being right?) but also to give him a bit of hope. Change is possible. Real change. And this is how it’s done.

208 car batteries at a time.

Feature image courtesy of Pat Henson

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.