By Lewis Krauskopf
(Reuters) - General Electric Co wants to be a "sizable" player in the market for systems that store energy to manage power volatility, a sector the company expects to quadruple to $6 billion by 2020, the head of GE's energy storage business told Reuters.
Demand for industrial battery systems is being driven by increasing reliance on intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar power and the potential to add energy to the grid quickly when power needs spike.
This need has attracted a wide range of companies, including Elon Musk's Tesla Motors Inc, which said in April it plans to package batteries for use for utilities as well as homes and businesses.
"We believe in the space and its ability to grow," Jeff Wyatt, GE's general manager for energy storage, said in a recent interview. "We think we can be a sizable player within it, and that’s really what we’re intending to do."
GE over the past year has overhauled its approach to the energy storage market, as it saw weaker demand for the battery it developed.
Now Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE is repositioning itself as a one-stop shop for power producers seeking to install energy storage systems, offering inverters, control systems, software as well as financing options.
Earlier this year, it scaled back production of its own Durathon industrial batteries, reducing its manufacturing workforce from 200 to 50 at the Schenectady, New York plant where the battery is made. The company is focused on improving Durathon's longevity, including managing its chemical degradation.
As part of its new energy storage package, GE is offering customers the option to install lithium-ion batteries made by other companies.
Despite the allure of battery systems, experts say their expense is a major factor preventing power operators from using them more broadly.
American Electric Power Inc has not invested in a significant energy storage installation since 2010, because it is unclear whether the benefits outweigh the costs, said Tom Weaver, AEP's distribution planning manager.
"Long term, energy storage is the answer to a lot of issues that need an answer, but the cost has to come down," said Weaver.
Since April, GE has struck two deals to supply energy storage projects with lithium ion batteries in California and Ontario, Canada, and Wyatt said the company intends to announce similar agreements this year.
Wyatt is relaunching GE's storage business in a market that is highly-fragmented, with as many as 20 significant players vying for deals, including large energy rivals such as Siemens AG, ABB Ltd and AES Corp, according to Cosmin Laslau, senior analyst with Lux Research.
There are also as many as 10 major battery cell manufacturers not to mention the many startups chasing energy storage business, Laslau said.
"By no means is GE the only supplier to the industry at this scale," Laslau said. "But their strategy is much better than it used to be."
GE would consider acquisitions to propel its new strategy, Wyatt said, but GE is well-positioned on its own as it can utilize its established relationships in the energy industry.
The storage business is part of GE's renewable energy unit within its roughly $28 billion power and water segment, the conglomerate's largest industrial division.
"We think we have a competitive offering," Wyatt said. "We think we can carve out and capture share within it. There are going to be many players within the space, but we think we are well-positioned to compete and grow the business."
Retail energy and services company Direct Energy, a unit of British utility Centrica, is running pilot energy storage projects with business and residential customers and envisions GE as a potential partner, should GE decide to expand into such smaller scale projects, said Cory Byzewski, vice president and general manager of Direct Energy Services.
"It's such an emerging space that it's way too early to define the winners and losers," Byzewski said.
GE is "a well-known company with a great balance sheet so they have as much a right to win as anybody," he added.
(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York, editing by G Crosse)