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Detroit Auto Show: Johnson Controls is a Big Battery Player with a Low Profile

DETROIT--You may never have heard of one of the biggest players in batteries for electric cars, but chances are you've been touched by one of its products. Bought a Sears Diehard battery recently? Chances are it was actually made by Johnson Controls, the world's leading battery maker. Other company car batteries are issued under such familiar names as NAPA and Pep Boys.

This is not a small company: From a humble beginning making what was arguably the world's first thermostat (hence the name) Johnson Controls has grown into a $30 billion business (it was $38 billion before the recession) and 75,000 employees (6,000 of them engineers and designers).

Johnson Controls' auto business takes in instrument panels, seating, door and overhead systems and automotive electronics. But it's batteries we're talking about here. Dr. Christian Rosenkranz is director of global business development for Johnson Controls/Saft, a joint venture that received $299 million in Department of Energy grant funding to produce 10-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs for the forthcoming (in 2012) Ford plug-in hybrid vehicle at an existing auto parts plant in Holland, Michigan that will get a $200 million makeover.

Ford's Transit Connect, named Truck of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show, will appear in an electric version, also with batteries by Johnson Controls/Saft.

According to Rosenkranz, the joint venture is also producing the lithium battery pack for the new S400 Mercedes mild hybrid, and for the related BMW ActiveHybrid 7 Series. These two cars use similar electric drivetrains, though different gasoline motors.

Alex Molinaroli is president of Johnson Controls' Power Solutions division, based in Milwaukee. Molinaroli pointed out that 70 percent of all new advanced battery capacity is going into Michigan, where Governor Jennifer Granholm "has done a great job, very aggressive."

To receive the DOE's $299 million, Molinaroli said, the company had to demonstrate it had battery customers (and Ford certainly qualifies), as well as the wherewithal to construct a new factory and find matching funds. It certainly helped that the joint venture received $170 million in state tax credits from Granholm's development czars.

There is payback to the state: The battery plant (in an existing Johnson Controls campus facility that made auto interiors) will create 550 jobs at full capacity, as well as indirect construction jobs.

"Right now, we're earning money from making lead-acid batteries, not lithium-ion," Molinaroli said. "Our lithium-ion division is investing in R&D. But we wouldn't be spending that money if we didn't think that there was a real business in electrifying the automobile."