GE may lease vehicle batteries for electric cars

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich Fri Sep 30, 2011 6:51pm EDT

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich (Reuters) - General Electric Co may lease costly vehicle batteries to electric-car buyers, joining other companies looking to get more people to buy alternative-energy automobiles.

The largest U.S. conglomerate is just at the "thinking stage" of such a move, said Mark Little, head of GE's research and development efforts, on Friday at an event at Nissan Motor Co's research center near Detroit.

GE makes batteries and is one of the biggest investors in Massachusetts-based battery maker A123 Systems Inc.

A battery leasing program is a venture that could allow GE to show off its range of businesses, from its industrial core which could be influential in manufacturing the batteries, to its GE Capital finance arm which could support the leasing.

These kinds of batteries are relatively new to the auto industry, leading to a level of skepticism among consumers. Questions about durability and performance could be addressed if buyers were simply asked to lease the battery that came with the electric vehicle.

"The life span and the performance of the batteries is not well understood," Little said. "We may be better off owning the asset."

He did not comment on how far along GE is in its consideration of leasing, and did not provide a timetable for entering the business.

Little did point to GE's approximately 6 percent stake in A123, a 10-year-old lithium-ion battery maker that went public in 2009, as a position GE can use as it digs deeper into the electric-vehicle market. Little said that GE has "no interest in being in the car business."

Little is an A123 board member. GE's involvement in the company dates back to its venture-capital investment before A123 went public, and Little advised GE when they invested in the start-up.

Talk about electric-vehicle battery leasing has come up in the auto industry in recent years as top automakers unveiled plans to launch vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and General Motors Co's Chevrolet Volt. A variety of companies, including Palo Alto, California-based Better Place and Nissan, have proposed battery leasing programs as a way to ease anxiety about electric cars.

Electric cars have been slow to catch on. In the U.S., a lack of available models, skimpy infrastructure, relatively low gasoline costs and high vehicle sticker prices are factors holding back demand for such vehicles. Nissan has sold 7,000 Leaf electric vehicles in the United States since launching it 10 months ago.

On Friday, GE said it is embarking on a two-year research project with Nissan that could help it better understand energy demands of electric vehicles and their owners. GE attempted to partner with Chrysler Group LLC a few years ago on hybrid vehicle programs, but that relationship failed to pan out.

(Reporting by John D. Stoll. Editing by Robert MacMillan and Carol Bishopric)

(This story corrects paragraph 8 to show A123 Systems went public in 2009, not "last year.")

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