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GM, ABB Seek Chevy Volt Battery Afterlife in Grid

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The green car battery recycling bandwagon just got a bit more crowded. General Motors and Swiss grid giant ABB (s ABB) announced Tuesday that the two companies will jointly research ways to reuse old batteries from GM’s Chevy Volt hybrid for storing power on the grid, from community back-up power and renewable power management to grid balancing and peak price arbitrage.

Tuesday’s memorandum of understanding was short on details, and the two companies cited its “non-exclusive” nature. That means GM and LG Chem, the maker of the battery cells for the Volt’s 16 kilowatt-hour batteries, may be announcing more partners in the future.

Just about every battery company and electric and hybrid vehicle maker seems to be looking for an afterlife for batteries that are too depleted to drive vehicles, yet still have up to 80 percent of their original capacity available for less stressful duties. In fact, that’s seen as critical for making EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles more affordable, since much of the additional cost comes from the expensive batteries.

Nissan announced in October that it would form a joint venture with Sumitomo to recycle lithium-ion electric car batteries, like those in its upcoming Leaf all-electric sedan. In April, the Renault-Nissan Alliance announced similar projects in Europe with utilities Enel in Italy and Endesa in Spain.

The action isn’t limited to major automakers. EnerDel, the Ener1 (s hev) subsidiary supplying lithium-ion batteries for Think City EVs, is working with Japanese conglomerate Itochu on a grid storage pilot project. Last week, BYD, the China-based, Warren Buffett-backed EV startup, announced a MOU with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to build batteries to back up wind power. Of course, all of these projects are still in the R&D phase.

Then there’s A123 (s aone), which already has a significant presence in grid storage and could find ways to bring its vehicle batteries to that market. Pike Research estimates that the grid-connected lithium-ion battery market will grow to $1 billion by 2018, mainly driven by the economies of scale that will come to the industry as it ramps up for the automotive sector. Samsung, for example, plans to start producing lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles next year through a joint venture with Germany-based Robert Bosch, and has said it is also targeting grid storage applications.

ABB — a sometimes slow-moving behemoth in the power grid field that generated annual revenue of $31.8 billion in 2009 — has been getting more involved in other smart grid and energy management projects lately. Last week, its venture arm invested $1.5 million in startup Power Assure, which makes software to match data center power consumption to server utilization.

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