Panasonic to Invest $1B in Cleantech: Batteries, Energy Monitoring and More

Panasonic (s PC), the world’s largest plasma-TV maker, will invest $1 billion by 2012 into clean technologies as part of a plan to focus its core business on outfitting homes and commercial buildings with solar power and energy-saving products. The plan is the latest example of a corporate behemoth eyeing opportunity in clean technology. As part of the shift, the Japanese consumer electronics company will develop its own products as well as leverage technologies acquired through its ongoing acquisition of solar cell and battery maker Sanyo Electric, Panasonic President Fumio Ohtsubo yesterday told Bloomberg. “We want to change our fighting ring from our current categories to a different field…Our products in consumer electronics and our appliances will benefit from the new core business,” Ohtsubo told Bloomberg, citing strong competition from Korean electronics maker Samsung.

As part of Panasonic’s new focus, the company will develop an energy-monitoring system for homes, Ohtsubo told Bloomberg. The system will pull data from home appliances (and presumably other sources of power demand) and display energy usage on television sets. He said the company could “realize this kind of concept” within 2-3 years.

Given Panasonic’s consumer electronics cachet, it’s not surprising the company will initially focus in part on home energy monitoring. Panasonic knows how to build electronics products that are fun and easy to use and it has well-established, global distribution channels. There’s been a flood of companies entering the home energy management space, but as Gartner analyst Zarco Sumic told me earlier this year, the vendors that will likely dominate the industry will be the ones that know how to market, sell and meet the needs of the consumer space. Those are qualities Panasonic certainly has.

Panasonic’s purchase of Sanyo Electric for $4.6 billion, announced last December, will provide the electronics heavyweight a springboard into other clean technologies — notably lithium-ion batteries and solar cells. Sanyo is the world’s largest maker of rechargeable batteries, according to Bloomberg, and the Japanese firm has more than 30 years of experience building solar PV products. In 1980, Sanyo says it began the world’s first commercial production of amorphous silicon solar cells, and today it produces hybrid solar cells at manufacturing plants in Hungary and Japan. Sanyo Homes, a subsidiary of Sanyo Electric, last month started selling what it calls “all-electric homes” equipped with a 3.78-kilowatt solar system, a heat pump for hot water, 10 LED light fixtures, and lithium-ion batteries to provide backup power.

Panasonic has already started working on battery technology separately from Sanyo. In early October, Panasonic announced the development of a prototype for a new 1.5 kWh lithium-ion battery module that it said could be used for energy storage connected with rooftop solar panels or electric vehicles. The company has been hit hard by the global economic downturn, posting losses and cutting thousands of jobs this year, but it sees a glimmer of hope in the expanding energy economy.