DOE-Backed Battery Plant Opens In Florida

With $95.5 million in assistance from the federal government, a new plant in Jacksonville, Fla., is ready to churn out advanced lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles and other machinery. Saft and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) held a celebration to mark the opening, but as the Solyndra episode demonstrated, the real challenge – for the company, for its expected 280 employees and for supporters of government aid to clean-energy manufacturing – will be to survive in a challenging global market.

According to the DOE, Saft will produce 370 megawatt-hours of battery power a year in Jacksonville. That’s the equivalent of supplying more than 37,000 electric vehicles, and many of the batteries will go for exactly that purpose. Others will be used to power military hybrid vehicles and for various industrial, agricultural and military applications, the DOE said.

lithium-ion battery plant, Jacksonville, Florida, Saft

image via Saft

The Saft plant, it should be noted, is in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, which since 1989 has been the fiefdom of Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). You might know Stearns as chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, a perch he has used to fiercely attack the Obama administration on its support for clean-energy development.

Stearns didn’t join Associate Deputy Secretary of Energy Admiral Melvin G. Williams at the recent Saft plant grand opening – but he was there a year ago at the groundbreaking, where he said: “I am honored to join in welcoming Saft’s Li-ion battery manufacturing facility to the Cecil Commerce Center, which underscores that this is a good place to do business. In addition, as a member of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, I recognize the contributions of these advanced rechargeable batteries in meeting our energy needs.”

According to the DOE, in addition to the $95.5 million in Recovery Act funds it received, Saft also got $20.2 million in financial incentives from Jacksonville and the state of Florida, all going toward a total cost for the plant of $191 million. At virtually the same time Saft was opening its plant, Boston-Power – which failed in its bid for a similarly sized grant in the DOE’s $2.4 billion advanced-battery program – was packing up and moving most of its operations to China.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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