A123 Systems opens new plant, new avenues for solar

A123 Systems located the continent’s largest lithium ion battery plant, which it just opened on Tuesday, in Livonia, Mich. to make its products more accessible to United States auto manufacturers. But electric cars aren’t the only things the batteries are designed to power.

“Our batteries are very well suited for use on the grid,” said Andy Chu, vice president of marketing and communications for A123 Systems. “Energy storage is a big part of our business.”

A123 Systems has already produced, sold and shipped enough batteries to capture and store 20 megawatts (MW) of energy from renewable sources like photovoltaic solar panels.

“We’ve deployed more lithium ion batteries for the grid than any other company in the world,” Chu said.

A123 Systems signed a contract with AES Energy Storage systems earlier this year to produce another 44 MW of batteries for use around the globe. That project should be complete by mid-2011, Chu said.

The opening of A123 Systems’ new plant was greeted with tremendous industry excitement. Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan governor, even accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the plant on Tuesday.

“This is about the birth of an entire industry,” Obama said. He has been pushing for lithium ion battery development in the U.S. since he took office.

The country has produced fewer than 2 percent of industrial lithium ion batteries used here. That number is expected to grow to 40 percent within the next five years.

While most of the focus for the batteries has been on their usefulness in the automotive industry, they have the potential to make a huge impact on how our power is generated and stored in this country.

“Electricity is unique in that it’s the only commodity in the world that’s consumed the moment it’s produced,” Chu said. “And the unstated reality of the renewables like solar and wind is: What happens when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining? You need some other source of power to back that up.”

Historically, the backup source has been gas generators. But lithium ion batteries, with their falling prices and rising storage capacity, are becoming a realistic alternative for collecting excess energy and discharging when needed in order to provide an uninterrupted power supply.

“It’s actually a very, very exciting time for energy storage,” Chu said. “Lithium ion batteries have the power to make the grid more robust and at the same time cleaner and greener.”