Let the sodium race begin.
General Electric announced that it will build a factory and development center in Niskayuna, N.Y. that will serve as the hub for its new battery business, and one of first products to come out of there will be sodium batteries. CEO Jeff Immelt and New York Gov. David Patterson were on hand for the event.
Sodium batteries are large-scale electrical storage devices capable of powering trucks or storing energy for wind farms. These batteries tend to be heavy and generally work at high temperatures of 285 Celsius and higher. Below that level, the batteries can go into a dormant state. Thus, you won't see them on scooters soon.
But they tend to be very efficient for large-scale power storage and have ability to deliver energy quickly without reducing lifespan or reliability – important considerations for grid storage. A data center rack full of sodium batteries could hold a kilowatt or more hour worth of power. A 25,000 square foot facility at could hold enough batteries to store 10 megawatt hours worth of power.
Sodium batteries haven't proliferated in the market – despite the clamor among investors, utilities and futurists for energy storage solutions – for two reasons. First, the price remains high, about $4,000 to $3,000 per kilowatt-hour, according to Sam Jaffe, senior research analyst with IDC's Energy Insights.
Second, there aren't many manufacturers. Japan's NKG Insulators is the principal large manufacturer of sodium-sulfur batteries and most of capacity for the next two years is sold out, according to Jaffe. The company has participated in trials with American Electric Power and Xcel Energy and inked deals to sell batteries to the Middle East. In the U.S. startups like GeoBattery concentrate in this area.
GE will come into the market with heft, credibility and, perhaps most important of all, a potential customer base. It will put its first sodium batteries in its own hybrid locomotive in 2010. Afterward, it will look at other transportation markets and the grid.
Wind farms are particularly interested in sodium batteries and GE is battling it out with Vestas for the top spot in wind turbines.
GE will initially invest $100 million into the facility, which will employ 350 people. GE also said it is applying for federal stimulus dollars. The factory ultimately will produce 10 million cells a year capable of storing 900 megawatt hours of electricity.
The company reiterated that it also has an investment in A123 Systems, which produces lithium-ion batteries for power tools and cars.
New York State has been somewhat actively tried to woo high-tech firms for the last several years. Former Gov. George Pataki created a number of programs, tax credits and industrial parks to lure chip makers to the state in the early part of the decade.