JCI & GE Unveil Investment, Technology for Greener Power Solutions

JCI & GE Unveil Investment, Technology for Greener Power Solutions

Usually GreenBiz's coverage of Johnson Controls Inc. focuses on its work on energy efficiency in buildings, and lately so has our coverage of General Electric.

However, developments in other lines of business for the companies also hold promise for sustainability by offering energy efficient and emissions-busting power solutions.

Johnson Controls plans to build a $100-million factory in China for making stop-start batteries for high-efficiency cars. The investment detailed yesterday by JCI, which dominates the auto battery market, is part of the firm's $520-million global commitment to the technology over the next four years. That commitment includes a nearly $140-million project to retool a factory in Ohio (announced in July) and a $280-million investment to boost manufacturing capacity in Germany.

Also yesterday, GE took the wraps off the latest addition to its portfolio of aeroderivative gas engines: a turbine called the FlexAero that runs on natural gas and doesn't need water to cool it or reduce emissions. GE's aeroderivative turbines, developed from their aviation engines, run on natural gas or biofuels and represent a burgeoning business for the firm. The company's orders for aeroderivative and heavy duty gas turbines amount to $1 billion so far this year in North America.

In a sense, the stop-start batteries and the new engine offer complementary solutions with the batteries serving a growing market in the developed world and the turbine providing an energy solution for the developing world.

Stop-Start BatteriesStop-start batteries. Image courtesy of Johnson Controls.

Stop-start technology switches off a car's engine when the vehicle is stopped and idling, say at a red light or in a traffic jam. A stop-start battery powers the auto's lights, radio and electrical systems in the meantime and makes it possible for the engine to restart when it's time to resume driving. Johnson Controls says its stop-start batteries can make that happen in a fraction of a second.

Stop-start cars, also called micro-hybrids and idle-stop vehicles, currently are most popular in Europe, where two dozen models are available, and so far have a small following in the U.S., where three models can be found, according to Pike Research. Pike expects the worldwide market will take off in a few years, rising from 3 million stop-start cars on the roads today to more than 37 million by 2020.

The advantages include lower emissions and better fuel economy -- a 5 to 10 percent improvement in both according to Pike, and as high as 12 percent, Johnson Controls says of its product. Pike points out that the stop-start vehicles are also easier on the wallet than hybrid electric vehicles. Globally, SSVs are expected to outsell HEVs 3.5 to 1 this year, says Pike, which predicts that ratio to climb to 16 to 1 by 2017.

Johnson Controls is looking to build on its stronghold in the industry. Through its VARTA brand, JCI is the leading supplier of stop-start batteries in Europe and produces 11 million of the batteries a year in its factories in Germany. Its plant conversion project in the U.S. is expected to add 6.8 million units of capacity and the new factory in China, slated to start production in 2013, is expected to have a capacity of 2.4 million stop-start batteries a year.

The FlexAero Turbine

The beauty of the FlexAero -- that is the FlexAero LM6000-PH, to give the turbine its full name -- is its ability to "provide power to anyone, anywhere, quickly, efficiently and in an environmentally responsible way," said Darryl Wilson, the president and CEO of the aeroderivative gas turbine business for the GE Power & Water division.

Wilson and Steve Bolze, who heads GE Power & Water, showed off the new turbine they called "a breakthrough in its class" during a media briefing that was webcast from Houston.

The FlexAero LM6000-PH. Image courtesy of GE.The 50-megawatt gas turbine can go from cold metal to full power in five minutes, "less time than it took to brew the cup of coffee you probably drank this morning," Wilson said. Running on natural gas and using high-efficiency technology, the engine is capable of generating electricity in a way that cuts carbon emissions by an estimated 38,400 metric tons per turbine per year -- the equivalent of the annual emissions from about 7,400 cars in the U.S.

The biggest number Wilson and Bolze trotted out had to do with water savings. Use of a single FlexAero turbine can save more than 26 million gallons of water a year, they said. A standard gas turbine would typically use that amount of water over the course of a year to dilute carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions.

"Today, 30 percent of the world's population is water constrained," Bolze said. "By 2025, the number will reach 60 percent. As global energy demand increases, so does the stress on our water supply -- a reality that we take very seriously."

The turbine, which GE considers ecomagination technology, takes its name in part from its flexibility in applications. It can be used as backup power for critical business operations, such hospitals, and as an emergency power source in the aftermath of natural disasters. It also can help bridge intermittent energy from solar and wind power. Most importantly, it can consistently generate energy in remote, rural or developing areas where reliable sources of power and water aren't part of the landscape.

"This is what the future of energy looks like in certain regions of the world," Bolze said.