TOKYO – Industry insiders on hand here for a battery and fuel-cell technology conference remain guardedly optimistic about the prospects for electric vehicles.

Lithium Energy Japan, the main supplier of lithium-ion batteries to Mitsubishi, tells attendees of the Battery Japan and FC Expo 2012 earlier this month it will open a second plant, its fourth overall, in Ritto, Shiga prefecture, next spring, creating capacity for an additional 75,000 battery packs for electric cars.

A joint venture between the auto maker and GS Yuasa, Lithium Energy Japan currently has annual capacity for 67,800 battery packs from its three plants, including a 6,800-unit facility in Kusatsu, 11,000-unit operation in Kyoto and 50,000-unit plant in Ritto.

The supplier hopes to produce 50,000 battery packs in fiscal 2012, says Ryoichi Okuyama, general manager in charge of GS Yuasa’s research and development center, up from 18,000 in the current fiscal year ending March 31.

Almost all output is for the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car, launched in July 2009, as well as the Peugeot and Citroen spin-offs supplied by the Japanese auto maker.

When the new Ritto plant comes on stream next year, the supplier will have an estimated 2.3 gigawatt hours of production capacity. It also promises to have new customers for the packs, though Okuyama declines to identify the companies.

Blue Energy, a second GS Yuasa JV with Honda, began providing batteries for Civic Hybrids last April from a plant in Osando outside Kyoto. The supplier has capacity to supply 200,000-300,000 hybrids, equaling 0.25 GWh of energy storage per year.

Honda has sold only 5,000 Civic Hybrids since the model’s unveiling at the 2011 New York auto show, with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March and flooding in Thailand in October blamed in part for the low volume.

Toyota’s Yoshikazu Tanaka, a senior executive in the auto maker’s product planning group, tells attendees fuel economy would improve 40% worldwide if all conventionally powered, gasoline-fueled cars were replaced with hybrids.

“And if we were to replace all hybrids with plug-in hybrids, fuel savings would grow to 70%,” he adds.

In developing the Prius Plug-In now hitting the market, Toyota was able to cut Li-ion battery-pack weight 50% and reduce the overall size of the unit 60%, compared with the original design used in prototype vehicles tested in 2010. The new battery weighs just 176 lbs. (80 kg) and stores 4.4 kWh, down from 352 lbs. (160 kg) and 5.2 kWh for the previous unit.

Another Toyota official confirms the next-generation Prius may debut as soon as 2015 and could be a plug-in model only, though no final decision has been made. He estimates plug-ins could account for 30% of total Prius sales by the time the next-gen model arrives.

Toyota signaled its next Prius with the NS4 concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, a car the auto maker said at the time represented its vision for the year 2015.

A senior Nissan executive tells WardsAuto his company also is making headway on batteries, saying the cost of the Leaf’s Li-ion battery pack should come down to ¥50 ($0.63)/watt-hour in 2013. That would put the cost of the car’s 24-kW/h battery at ¥1.2 million ($15,000).

Toshiba Senior Vice President Toshio Masaki predicts automotive demand for Li-ion batteries will grow to ¥3.8 trillion ($47.5 billion) in 2020, up from ¥350 billion ($4.4 billion) last year.

The largest segment, an estimated ¥2.2 trillion ($27.5 billion), will be for EVs and PHEVs. Other segments in Toshiba’s forecast include conventional hybrids, electric scooters and hybrid trains.

Toshiba’s SCiB battery, which employs lithium-titanate for its anode material, finds use in Mitsubishi’s short-range i-MiEV M and Minicab MiEV and Honda’s Fit EV and Ev-neo electric scooter.

Hideo Takeshita, vice president of Tokyo-based Institute of Information Technology, pegs the automotive Li-ion battery market at 56 GWh in 2020, up from 2 GWh in 2011. Against this backdrop, he believes cell prices will fall to ¥10 ($0.12)/watt-hour, from ¥30 ($0.38) at present.

On a cell basis, covering all product segments including consumer electronics, IIT reports demand grew to 4.2 billion in 2011, with Samsung SDI claiming the largest share at 24%. Panasonic (including subsidiary Sanyo Electric) was second at 23%, followed by LG Chem (supplier to the Renault Kangoo Z.E. and Fluence Z.E. models launched last year) at 16%.

BYD says it plans to put another 150 electric buses into operation this year, including 100 in Changsha, raising its China market total to more than 350.

BYD Japan President Xueliang Liu says the auto maker is focusing on the public-transport sector, “especially large buses,” where it estimates fuel savings of ¥31.4 ($0.40)/km by switching from diesel to battery power.

Over the projected 8-year life of the eBUS-12 electric bus, Liu estimates savings of ¥11.2 million ($140,000).

The auto maker placed its first three electric buses in trial operation in its home city of Shenzhen in January 2011. In August, it put another 200 in service for the Shenzhen Universiade.

During six months of operation, each bus has averaged 156 miles (250 km) per charge with the air-conditioner on. The battery, made of lithium iron phosphate reportedly stores 324 kWh of energy.

In October, Hertz announced it would use a BYD electric bus to shuttle passengers at Los Angeles International Airport. This year, Liu reports BYD will deliver several electric buses to European and Southeast Asian operators.

In the passenger-vehicle segment, BYD has leased 350 e6 electric cars to taxi operators in Shenzhen and plans to add 1,000 units this year, although Liu does not specify where the cars would go into service.

The executive estimates savings of ¥7.5 ($0.09)/km by switching from gasoline to electric power based on average electricity and gas prices of $0.09/kWh and $1.21/L. That equates to a savings of  ¥4 million ($50,000) over five years.

As to China’s target of 5 million EVs in operation by 2020, Liu calls it a high, but reachable hurdle.

Hyundai says it will begin series production of the ix35 fuel-cell vehicle in 2012 and over the next three years hopes to validate the model in markets outside South Korea. The ix35 features a 10,150-psi (70-MPa) high-pressure tank that can hold 12.6 lbs. (5.7 kg) of hydrogen.

The Korean government plans to have 18 hydrogen refueling stations in operation by 2013, 43 by 2015 and 168 by 2020.

In Japan, the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference, an industry consortium receiving support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, plans to establish 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations by 2025, at which time it hopes to have 2 million fuel-cell vehicles in operation.