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GE commits to battery factory (with photo gallery)

GE commits to battery factory (with photo gallery)

General Electric will build heavy duty sodium storage batteries in a $100 million factory in the Cap
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General Electric will build heavy duty sodium storage batteries in a $100 million factory in the Capital Region, creating 350 technical and support jobs, the company announced Tuesday during a news conference at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said the facility will be in operation by 2011. He said the market for the batteries could reach $500 million in sales by 2015 and $1 billion shortly thereafter.

GE is using $15 million from the state and is seeking federal stimulus money toward construction of the factory. GE’s investment will be at least $85 million unless it gets the stimulus money, company officials said.

The batteries will power hybrid locomotives and passenger vehicles, be used in medical devices, and will balance electrical loads on the utility grid, among other applications, Immelt said. “For our rail and energy customers, this is a big statement of investment in these industries,” he said.

GE is looking at several sites in the region for the factory and will make an announcement within the month, Immelt said. The plant will be 210,000 square feet and be located on 10 acres.

Ray Gillen, chairman of the Metroplex Development Authority, said Schenectady County is competing for the site, along with other communities.

“We have been working on this very aggressively for six months and we have presented sites that work very effectively with GE. We have been responsive to the team at GE that is conducting the site process and we have presented shovel ready sites in the county that meet the company needs,” Gillen said.

GE already has several facilities in Schenectady County, including its renewable energy headquarters and turbine manufacturing facility along I-890 in Schenectady and Rotterdam, and its Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

Scientists and engineers at the Niskayuna center have been working on sodium battery technology over the last five years, part of a $150 million GE investment, Immelt said.

The work complements GE’s investment in A123, a Massachusetts-based private supplier of lithium batteries for plug-in electric vehicles, he said.

Frank Wicks, a mechanical engineering professor at Union College, called the GE product large rechargeable batteries, which will be used to store large amounts of energy.

“The battery does not make the electricity, it saves electricity,” he said.

The sodium batteries will have to be heated to work, meaning they are complicated. “They are going to be large scale,” Wicks said.

They would store energy generated by turbines, wind and solar collectors, and then discharge it later. The energy would power a hybrid diesel locomotive, for example, allowing it to use less fossil fuel.

Wicks said sodium batteries as of yet are not practical for use in laptops and cameras.

Sodium batteries also are less toxic than lead acid batteries and lithium batteries, Wicks said.

The battery plant would be GE’s third major investment in the Capital Region in the last year, Immelt said. GE is spending $31 million to renovate Building 53 at the Erie Campus for the renewable energy headquarters and $3 million for a digital X-ray equipment manufacturing facility in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Tech Park in North Greenbush.

GE Global Research Senior Vice President Mark Little called the technology behind sodium batteries revolutionary, so much so that GE has 30 patents to protect it, he said.

Sodium batteries store “a lot of energy in a small amount of space,” Little said. GE can build the batteries at low cost because, “We are using common materials, table salt and nickel, to create the batteries.”

The New York State Economic Development Corp. is providing GE with $15 million toward the project’s capital costs. GE is also seeking federal stimulus money through the Department of Energy. GE expects a response by August.

Gov. David Paterson, who attended Tuesday’s announcement with other elected officials, said his goal is to make New York the capital of the clean energy industry.

Earlier this month, he announced the creation of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium. The state will invest more than $25 million to finance the consortium, which will develop partnerships with public and private organizations in the development of clean energy and storage technology.

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