When Fumio Ohtsubo, who runs the Panasonic conglomerate, announced that the company would invest $1 billion into expanding its green market, it was less a breakthrough than a coup de grace.
Panasonic has been building its green portfolio for years. The company makes the nickel batteries for the Toyota Prius and the lithium ion batteries for the Tesla Roadster. Last year, it started selling home fuel cells though local utility Osaka Gas that turn methane into electricity. And, like a lot of TV manufacturers, it has begun to tout energy efficiency as a selling point in its TVs. Some of its plasma TVs consume only 142 watts, explained Pete Fannon, vice president of technology, policy and government regulation at Panasonic.
The company also has plans to release a LED light bulb that costs $40, consumes about 7 watts, and emits as much light as a 60-watt incandescent. Panasonic also participates in electronics recycling facilities and is a member of a number of smart grid panels in the U.S.
Last year, in a move geared to let it get into solar panels and beef up its battery portfolio, the company bought a controlling interest in Sanyo, which was started in the first half of the 20th century by one of Panasonic's early employees. The company is also working with a number of Japanese companies on smart grid trials in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The next push? Homes. The company has a construction unit that can produce modular homes complete with energy efficient washing machines, TVs, new forms of insulation, standby lithium battery packs, solar panels and passive air conditioners from various divisions in the company itself. (See the video). It helps to have thousands of engineers and lots of factories at your disposal.
The big question mark is how aggressive Panasonic will be. Like many Japanese conglomerates, the company has been somewhat skittish about taking some of its domestic products overseas. I asked Ohtsubo about the company's green home plans in 2007. Japan, and maybe Europe, he said. Whether you see the blue Panasonic label all over the place again, or whether most of this stuff says in trade show purgatory will become one of the more interesting issues in the green consumer market.