DETROIT – Johnson Controls Inc., the world’s largest supplier of lead-acid automotive starter batteries, says it will have the first plant in the U.S. to produce lithium-ion batteries for hybrid-electric and full-electric vehicles, beginning this summer.

Located in Holland, MI, the new plant is expected to produce 15 million cells when it achieves full production, says Alex Molinaroli, president for JCI’s Power Solutions division, at a press conference at the North American International Auto Show here.

In addition, JCI plans to open a second Li-ion facility in North America, but the location has not yet been decided, Molinaroli says.

For the time being, all of JCI’s Li-ion batteries for light vehicles come from a factory in Nersac, France. Initial customers are BMW AG, Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co., which uses the batteries in its electric versions of the Transit Connect small commercial vehicle.

Although demand for energy-dense Li-ion cells is robust, conventional lead-acid batteries continue to provide electrical power for the vast majority of vehicles worldwide.

JCI has 35 manufacturing facilities globally supplying more than a third of the world’s lead-acid batteries to auto makers and aftermarket retailers.

China remains a market with tremendous potential for lead-acid battery production. JCI’s first plant in Shanghai soon will be joined by new facilities in Changxing in eastern China, with capacity for 8 million batteries, and Chongqing in the middle of the country, with capacity for 6 million units.

“As OEM customers increase their vehicle production and the aftermarket grows, JCI is making investments to be a leader long term,” Molinaroli says.

“In the next three years, we will grow from a single plant in Shanghai today to three producing more than 18 million automotive batteries annually. The stated objective is to produce 30 million batteries in China by 2016.”

With its battery expertise, JCI is becoming entrenched in the market for fuel-saving start/stop technology, already employed on hybrid-electric vehicles in the U.S. and on millions of non-hybrid vehicles in Europe.

The technology allows the engine to shut off when the vehicle comes to a stop – at a red light, for instance – then restart immediately when the accelerator is depressed. The technology can reduce fuel consumption and emissions up to 12%, Molinaroli says.

JCI supplies nearly a million start/stop batteries annually, the vast majority of them for Europe.

“Our plan is to invest over $350 million in start/stop over the next five years, including adding capacity here in the U.S.” Molinaroli says. “In that timeframe we estimate the total market will grow to 20 million start/stop batteries annually. In Europe, alone, we expect the market to reach 70% of all new vehicles.”

The system can use a slightly altered battery that still uses basic lead-acid chemistry, but a unique alternator is required, he says.

Although auto makers and suppliers have said for years that start/stop is coming to the U.S., Molinaroli says this time the predictions are for real, nudged along by the corporate average fuel economy mandate of 35.5 mpg by 2016.

“It’s coming,” he says. “Now we’re actually building a plant, and we have production contracts.”

Also at the Detroit show, JCI displays its ie:3 concept car, an all-electric 5-passenger hatchback that employs flexible seating; polypropylene with wheat straw on the lower instrument panel; and innovative 3D mesh on the door trim, center console and upper instrument panel, reducing weight up to 20%.

Another weight savings stems from the elimination of speakers for the audio system. Instead, several transducers embedded in the headliner allow high-fidelity sound to cascade from the ceiling.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com