Johnson Controls Gets a Charge out of Batteries

Although it's got a name as catchy as Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan for putting the country back on a sound financial track, Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI  ) hopes its 5-5-5 plan for energy storage gains more traction than the presidential aspirant's campaign did.

The auto parts supplier is part of a consortium of companies seeking to design a better car battery as quickly as possible. They want to see an energy storage device that delivers fives times the energy density at a fifth of the cost within five years. As much as I wish them success, color me skeptical. Their goals are laudable, but the market is literally littered with the carcasses of battery makers that sought to remake the industry. A123 Systems, anyone? Ener1? Valance Technology?

A meeting of the minds
Although those marketplace failures often had the backing of the taxpayer, the new group has substantial backing from the private sector with Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) , Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT  ) , and the non-profit Clean Energy Trust joining in. Of course, the Energy Dept. is also kicking in $122 million as it seeks to find a green energy winner somewhere that it can point to.

The Argonne National Laboratory will establish the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research in Chicago. It was Argonne that helped develop the battery technology LG Chem used to supply lithium-ion batteries for General Motor's (NYSE: GM  ) Chevy Volt and Ford's (NYSE: F  ) electric Focus.

Of course, earlier this year GM had to recall all of the Volts it sold last year to retrofit the cars after several high-profile episodes of the batteries catching fire. And with its all-electric Chevy Spark due out next year, it had planned to purchase tens of thousands of batteries from A123, which itself was subject to a massive recall of its production run and helped hasten its drive to bankruptcy (Johnson Controls, itself a major battery producer, is bidding to buy A123's assets for $125 million).

Dead batteries
From GM to Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA  ) , battery failure has been the Achilles' heel of the EV industry with even Nissan's (NASDAQOTH: NSANY  ) LEAF suffering from capacity loss. No doubt that is one of the reasons why Johnson Controls and its partners want to invest in advanced battery technology. Curing the litany of problems in energy storage might help resuscitate the electric car market.

And resuscitation is what it needs. There's relatively little demand for EVs with maybe 50,000 cars being sold this year. Recall, if you will, that's only slightly more than the total 40,000 GM had once said it would sell in 2012 all by itself while Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) has abandoned plans to mass produce EVs.

Chevy may have sold almost 21,000 Volts so far this year, but it remains a tiny fraction of the overall car market and only because it was virtually bribing buyers to take them. Reuters estimated GM loses $49,000 on every Volt it builds, and that it had resorted to extremely low-cost lease deals -- $199 a month! -- to move them off the lot. When those incentives expired, the number of Volts sold last month fell by nearly half.

Moreover, government purchases of Volts have skewed the actual numbers, too, with the Defense Dept. planning on buying 1,500 of them while the GSA bought 100 Volts last year. Government purchases of GM vehicles in general were 79% higher this past June than in 2011.

Recharge and relax
The electric car is a cool technology that's proven it's not yet ready for prime time. Maybe in five years when Johnson Controls and the others have been able to develop a better battery there will come a time when EVs really can be mass-produced, but in the meantime investors might want to keep an eye on leading lead-acid battery maker Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE  ) , which primarily makes after-market batteries. It's teaming up with Maxwell Technologies  (Nasdaq: MXWL  ) to create their own advanced technological storage solutions.

They don't have a catchy 5-5-5 name like Johnson Controls (though some might think "advanced, integrated, battery-ultracapacitor energy storage solutions" is close), but it's dealing with an auto that's here and now, not some hoped for future revolution.

Johnson Controls is a big-league provider of parts and services to companies like Ford and Toyota and is very well-positioned to grow with China's economy. The company is perhaps best known among investors as a maker of batteries for cars, including the lithium-ion battery packs used in electric cars and the most advanced hybrids. This space has gathered a lot of investor interest, but is JCI the best way to play it? The Motley Fool answers this question and more in our most in-depth Johnson Controls research available for smart investors like you. Thousands have already claimed their own premium ticker coverage, and you can gain instant access to your own by clicking here now.


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