Japan already has a lead over Europe and the United States when it comes to storing grid electricity – especially intermittent wind and solar power – in big batteries. Several deals announced recently seem to be set to expand it.

Take Sanyo, which last week announced a big new push into using its lithium-ion batteries to store grid power. By next year, the company expects to have Sanyo smart energy systems (SanyoSES) linking its solar panels and batteries to energy efficient refrigerators, air conditioners and lighting systems.

To get there, Sanyo will both be scaling up its development of high-capacity lithium-ion battery systems and scaling down its market to target stores, schools, and homes, as well as the factories and high-rise buildings that make up its current target markets, it said.

Sanyo was already the world's biggest maker of lithium-ion batteries for laptops and consumer electronics. But it and other advanced battery makers are aiming their sights at storing solar and wind power, which need storage to back up their intermittent nature (see Will Solar Crash the Smart Grid?).

Japan is home to NGK Insulators, the primary manufacturer of high-temperature sodium-sulfur batteries that now make up the lion's share of grid storage batteries now in place – many of them in Japan (see Top Ten Smart Grid: Energy Storage).

But the scaling up of production of lithium-ion batteries for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles could bring down their price to compete with sodium-sulfur and other grid-sized technologies like flow batteries, analysts say. Lithium-ion battery makers A123 Systems and Altair Nanotechnologies have set their sights on the grid storage market (see Grid Energy Storage: Big Market, Tough to Tackle).

Sanyo, which is being acquired by Panasonic, also said this week that it's providing batteries of a different flavor – nickel-metal hydride – to French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën, adding to a list of automaking partners that includes Ford, Honda and Volkswagen. Panasonic's acquisition of Sanyo has given it inroads with electric vehicle startup Tesla Motors as well (see Panasonic Set to Make Batteries for Tesla's Model S).

Another electric vehicle battery maker looking to grid storage in Japan is Electrovaya, which announced this week it would enter the market with Nippon Kouatsu Electric Co., a maker of distribution grid equipment.

Electrovaya is also launching its Maya-300 EV car with help from ExxonMobil's lithium-ion battery technology (see Green Light post and The Maya 300: An Exxon-Assisted Electric Car). Toronto-based Electrovaya is also working on electric vehicle projects with Statoil Hydro in the United Kingdom, the Tata Group in India and Miljobil Grenland in Norway.

Several battery makers have been looking at reusing partly depleted vehicle batteries as grid storage devices. Nissan Motor Co. and Sumitomo Corp. said last month that they'll establish a joint venture aimed at just that (see Wall Street Journal).

Even after they've gone through enough charge-and-discharge cycles to warrant their replacement in the demanding task of powering a vehicle, the lithium-ion batteries Nissan makes in a joint venture with NEC can retain up to 80 percent of their capacity, Hideaki Watanabe, general manager of Nissan's global zero emission business unit, told the Journal.

Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.