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Battery maker hangs tough in a struggling industry

Published October 12, 2012

Against a flood of bad news from North American battery makers, one company remains on its feet.

It is, surprisingly, in Mississauga.

Why is this a shock?

First, consider Canada’s minor role in the EV world.

Then, look at the gloom engulfing an industry that just three years ago was bubbling with anticipation of an electric-vehicle boom and eagerly awaiting $2.4 billion from the U.S. government.

Then, as now, Asia was lapping North America in the race for battery supremacy: Washington aimed to increase U.S. battery production to 500,000 a year by 2015. Creating this domestic supply would employ Americans and boost local electric-vehicle assembly.

But how quickly the world turned.

EV sales are lagging so demand for batteries is far below expectation. As a result, manufacturers haven’t built anywhere near the capacity for half a million batteries and much of the support money sits idle.

But even the reduced capacity vastly exceeds demand. So production is curtailed at some locations. A few factories are shuttered. And, of course, companies are in trouble.

Two major American-owned manufacturers — Valance Technology and Enerdel — are scuffling after filing for bankruptcy protection. Wanxiang Group Corporation, China’s largest automotive component maker, has reinflated A123 Systems with a $465 million (U.S.) investment.

In Michigan, with the prodding of generous tax breaks, South Korea’s LG Chem built a factory to produce batteries for General Motors’ modestly selling Volt. The plant has yet to produce a battery and most employees are on rotating furloughs, basically losing a week’s work each month. For now, the company’s home plant is supplying the few batteries required.

But in a Mississauga industrial park, a relatively small battery maker called Electrovaya Inc. chugs along.

The business was founded in 1996 as a research and development company by electrochemist Sankar Das Gupta and physicist James Jacobs. It went public in 2000. Das Gupta is CEO and chairman; family members are everywhere.

Electrovaya isn’t immune to the industry’s malaise.

Chrysler/Fiat — joining the growing ranks of carmakers having second thoughts about EVs — recently cancelled a test of plug-in hybrid minivans and pick-ups after overheated Electrovaya batteries damaged three of 109 experimental trucks. (The problem didn’t arise in the 23 minivans.)

The company is losing more money this year than last, and its share price is 10 per cent of the 2010 high-water mark.

But director of research Raj Das Gupta remains optimistic: “Others have disappeared. We’re still there. We haven’t given up.”

The company’s conservatism is one reason it’s still standing, he says. When others expanded, “we took things slowly.”

Like most competitors, Electrovaya now makes massive batteries to store energy for the electricity grid. It’s sold one to an Arizona utility, a second is to be installed soon in downtown Toronto, and “a few more are in the queue.”

The company might continue working with Chrysler, Das Gupta says, but “it’s not our only pony.”

Electrovaya’s manufacturing process eliminates toxic solvents, which cuts costs. It recently unveiled a new version of its “Lithium Ion SuperPolymer” battery that, it says, has higher energy density than many competitors.

“That’s what’s keeping us alive,” Das Gupta says. “We’re not doing super-stellar. But we’re stable.”

He doesn’t consider electric vehicles “a flop;” instead, “maybe mistimed. Perhaps expectations were hyped up a little bit.” Other companies “were acting on that assumption.”

Still, EVs will succeed and, in the face of climate change, they must, he says.

“They’re much better than four years ago, and they’ll continue to improve,” but “in a more or less linear pattern.”

Which means slowly. Meanwhile, the industry will struggle and its observers predict a major shakeup.

It will be worth watching how the Canadian player fares.

Update: A few days after this column was published, A123 announced the deal with Wanxiang had fallen through and it had filed for bankruptcy protection. Another American company, Johnson Controls Inc., says it will acquire A123′s automotive business assets.

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