Milton battery maker Exide surges into the future

Exide’s expansion, during the lingering recession, adds a high-tech feather to Georgia’s burgeoning alternative energy cap. Forty scientists and engineers will ultimately be hired at the north Fulton lab. Another 200 factory workers will get jobs in Columbus over the next few years.

Like so much of the renewable energy industry, which includes bio-fuel, wind, solar and nuclear technologies, battery makers depend greatly upon taxpayer munificence in the United States and Europe.

The Obama administration, like the European Union, has mandated that cars and trucks get better mileage and reduce pollution. Billions of federal dollars have been allocated to create more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The stimulus package sets aside $2 billion in grants and loan guarantees for battery makers. Exide has already received $34 million. More may be forthcoming.

Paul Cheeseman, head of global research and development for Exide, and the man who’ll run the laboratory, said his company’s R&D budget is jumping 40 percent to prepare for an explosion of hybrid-electric vehicles.

“When things go bad everybody tightens their belt – and we did too – but at no time did senior management tell me to cut back because this is what’s needed to enjoy new markets in the future,” he said.

A 122-year-old company with 11,000 employees worldwide including 277 in Milton, Exide exited bankruptcy in 2004 and set about getting "back to the basics," in Cheeseman’s words.  Making lead-acid batteries for cars and trucks is an Exide standard. Making them for hybrid-electric vehicles, or HEVs, is the key to a profitable future, Cheeseman and industry analysts say.

By 2012, European cars and trucks must have reduced carbon dioxide emissions, an expected boom for hybrids that run on gas or diesel, but get a significant kick from electricity generated by the car itself. When a car brakes, for example, it creates energy that can be harnessed in a battery. So-called “stop-start” hybrids can generate 5 percent of a car’s energy, Cheeseman said, with a commensurate reduction in CO2 emissions.

The battery market will also grow once the U.S. fuel-efficiency standard – 35 miles per gallon by 2016 – kicks in. Specialty batteries, though, could cost $500.

It will be years before large numbers of full-hybrids, like the Toyota Prius or electricity-only vehicles, take to the nation’s highways. Next-generation battery technology isn’t yet commercially proven.

“I’m not aware of any hybrid automaker out there [that’s] planning to drop lead-acid batteries; there’s far too much risk,” said clean-technology analyst Craig Irwin with Wedbush Morgan Securities.

“Exide has made tremendous strides over the last several years," he added. "They’ve done a good job restructuring their operations.”

Exide, with sales of $3.3 billion last year, is also focusing research on batteries to harness energy created by the wind and the sun. Southern hemisphere locales without an established power grid, like India, Africa and the Australian Outback, are prime markets for batteries that store power generated by wind and solar turbines.

Exide scientists are working to perfect mega-batteries that power submarines or serve as generators for use, possibly, during natural disasters. Milton’s scientists will also continue work on next-wave lithium-ion batteries.

The government stimulus helps Exide defray costs of research and development. It could also lead to desperately needed manufacturing jobs. Congress mandated that battery makers and other alternative-energy companies set up shop in this country.

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