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GE to make heavy-duty batteries in New York

Company planning a $100 million plant in upstate New York to make sodium batteries for hybrid locomotives and other heavy-duty and transportation applications.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of battery-related projects from GE's New York research labs. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

General Electric on Tuesday committed $100 million to open a factory in upstate New York to manufacture batteries for hybrid locomotives and other industries such as power grid storage.

CEO Jeffrey Immelt dedicated the facility at a press conference at GE's Niskayuna, New York research and development facility along with New York governor David Paterson and other politicians.

GE has been testing sodium-metal chloride batteries for heavy-duty industrial applications, such as hybrid locomotives and trucking equipment in mining. The technology can also be used for back-up power in data centers, plug-in electric vehicles, and to smooth electricity flow across the grid, GE executives said during the press conference.

GE has already invested $150 million in developing sodium battery technology, which it says can store a large amount of energy in a relatively small space. Because it uses relatively common materials--sodium and nickel--the cost is competitive with other battery technologies, said Mark Little, director of GE Global Research.

"It's very sophisticated, very high-end manufacturing technology with very simple materials, giving you low cost," Little said.

In the next month, GE expects to pick a site for the factory, which will employ about 350 manufacturing jobs in the upstate area. The plan is to break ground this year and be producing in 2011. The factory will be able to produce 10 million cells, the equivalent of 900 megawatt-hours worth of storage, Immelt said.

GE is an investor in lithium-ion battery company A123 Systems, which is also targeting automotive and grid energy storage customers. Immelt said GE's sodium technology should complement what A123 offers.

Immelt forecast that GE's battery business could grow to $500 million in sales by 2015 and eventually be a $1 billion business.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt holding a sodium battery at an announcement of a manufacturing facility in upstate New York. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

"We see lots of applications that are ready for this technology. We see those spaces exploding," he said, adding that GE intends to sell its products to customers outside the U.S.

The company will apply in the next month for federal stimulus money set aside to promote domestic battery manufacturing, but the company will build the facility regardless, Immelt said.

"The way to think about the stimulus money is it's an accelerator. It helps make technologies more competitive and move them more quickly," he said. "This has to be the vision of what the future of the country has to look like from a manufacturing standpoint."