From wooden shoes to electric vehicles

October 4, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Gov. Jennifer Granholm drove one of the first Ford Transit Connect Electric commercial vans in late September, a vehicle powered with a battery pack assembled at the Johnson Controls-Saft plant in one of the hottest small towns in North America for electric vehicle battery production: Holland, Mich.

Two plants less than two miles apart are under construction in Holland for production of drive batteries for electric vehicles. The LG Chem plant, which broke ground in July and will produce battery cells for the Chevrolet Volt, among other vehicles, will be fully operational sometime in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Johnson Controls-Saft plant at 36 W. 48 St., while partly under interior reconstruction for production of battery cells, already has begun shipping assembled battery packs and even has had its first change in management. Bill Delaney took over as plant manager in August, replacing Elizabeth Rolinski who was promoted to vice president of global operations for production of lithium ion batteries by the Johnson Controls-Saft joint venture.

Major renovation of Johnson Control’s so-called Meadowbrook Plant for battery cell production officially began in July and is expected to be completed in late November, according to Amanda Spore, launch manager at Johnson Controls-Saft in Holland.

The battery production facilities, which will comprise a total of 180,000 square feet, are expected to begin producing battery cells for the Ford Transit in August 2011, according to Rebecca Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for Johnson Controls-Saft.

“For this particular plant, the investment is about $220 million,” said Fitzgerald.

The plant will include very clean environments for production of the battery cells, which is not typical of traditional lead-acid battery manufacturing. The general contractor on the project is GDK Construction of Holland.

Fitzgerald said that about 45 people are working at the plant currently. That number is expected to increase to around 90 by about a year from now when battery cell production is under way.

The battery packs already being assembled there are shipped to Azure Dynamics, which manufactures the electric drivetrain that goes into the Ford Transit.

Johnson Controls announced in late September it has placed an order for 20 Transit Connect Electric vans, which will be among an exclusive supply of the vehicles earmarked for the first 10 customers in the fourth quarter of this year.

The Transit Connect Electric is among five new electrified vehicles Ford is bringing to market within the next two years, including hybrids, pure battery electrics and plug-in hybrids. The vehicle can achieve a range of up to 80 miles on a single charge, according to Johnson Controls-Saft, and has a top speed of 75 mph. The battery is rechargeable using either a 240-volt or standard 120-volt outlet.

Commercial vans are considered excellent candidates for electric drive because they generally are used on predictable, short-range routes, and are returned to a central location each night, where charging would be relatively convenient.

The Ford Transit Connect Electric would totally eliminate gas costs for those deliveries it makes, according to Johnson Controls-Saft.

The battery cells now going into the battery packs being assembled in Holland for the first Ford Transit Connects are from the Johnson Controls-Saft plant in France. Saft is a French firm that had an early start in lithium-ion (or li-ion) battery production

Johnson Controls’ new battery plant in Holland is among the first fully dedicated li-ion automotive battery facilities in the world, and was made possible in part by a $299 million matching grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, along with $168.5 million in incentives from the state of Michigan.

“The stimulus grant and the state of Michigan incentives substantially changed our manufacturing footprint expansion,” said Mary Ann Wright, vice president for technology and innovation at Johnson Controls headquarters in Milwaukee. “Without these incentives, we would not have come to the United States. As a result, we are here today — less than 10 months since receiving the grant — shipping batteries from our manufacturing line in Holland that are making their way into real vehicles for real customers.”

Johnson Controls learned in August last year that the U.S. Department of Energy had selected it for a $299 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With the matching amount from Johnson Controls-Saft, the joint venture’s major leap into electric vehicle battery production in North America represents a nearly $600 million total investment in equipment and infrastructure.

The project will include a second electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant, but Johnson Controls-Saft has not yet announced where that will be, according to Fitzgerald.

Almost 50 companies and organizations received $2.4 billion in ARRA funds in August to accelerate the manufacturing of electric vehicles, batteries and components in America. An industry analyst said the JCI grant was the largest of them all.

They are all matching grants, which means half of the Johnson Controls-Saft investment of almost $600 million will eventually be reimbursed through the DOE grant.

Johnson Controls has long been the world's largest producer of traditional lead-acid batteries for use in light cars and trucks: 120 million batteries were made in 2008.

Johnson Controls-Saft in France is already producing lithium-ion batteries for the Mercedes S-Class hybrid, now being sold in Europe and the U.S., and will supply the batteries for the BMW 7-Series ActiveHybrid.

The federal government also is investing in the LG Chem plant being built in Holland. Compact Power, a Michigan subsidiary wholly owned by LG Chem, will invest about $302 million, with about half of that ultimately to be refunded by the Department of Energy through an ARRA grant to stimulate the production of electric vehicles and their drivetrains in the U.S.

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