A123’s bankruptcy: Good for America

October 17, 2012, 10:45 AM UTC

By Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE — In all the buzz surrounding the bankruptcy of battery maker A123, one point has been overlooked. In the long run, the company’s downfall may be good news for America.

A123, based in Waltham, Ma., makes lithium-ion batteries designed for electric and hybrid cars. The startup Fisker Automotive, which produces the $97,000 Karma hybrid, is a customer, (Some of the batteries A123 supplied Fisker are now part of a costly product recall.) BMW and General Motors (GM) are also customers, and General Electric (GE) has invested around $100 million in A123. The silver lining in the deal is that Johnson Controls (JCI), a giant American corporation based in Glendale, Wisconsin, has agreed to pay $75 million for bankruptcy financing and $125 million to purchase the struggling company’s assets. If it doesn’t get outbid in bankruptcy court, Johnson Controls will end up owning A123’s technology and its manufacturing facilities.

And that would be a godsend for America’s fledging battery industry.

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Only last summer, the Wanxiang Group, a major Chinese auto parts maker, had offered to buy a controlling interest in A123 for $450 million. A123 liked the deal but ran into stiff political opposition from Congress. After all, the company, which employs some 1,200 people — 900 of them at a manufacturing facility in Livonia, Michigan — received a $249 million Department of Energy grant, along with $100 million in state tax credits, to build its battery plant there.  Some senators questioned the wisdom of a deal in which a Chinese company would be allowed to buy the advanced technology of an American company that has been supported by taxpayer dollars. Besides the DOE money, A123 was a federally funded MIT startup and benefited from contracts with the U.S. military.

By taking over A123, Johnson Control will help slow the export of intellectual property overseas. China recently invested in Boston Power, a Massachusetts maker of lithium-ion batteries. Earlier, a Russian investor bought Ener1, another struggling U.S. battery company. Michael Lew, an energy analyst at Needham & Company in New York explains it this way: “Johnson Controls is America’s best hope to have a thriving battery industry. If this industry is going to be prolific job creator in the future, it makes sense to have a major presence here.” There’s also a national security angle. As the U.S. military gravitates more toward electrified vehicles and naval vessels, including submarines, does the nation want this key technology to be solely in the hands of foreign nations?

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Another reason Lithium-ion technology could be so important to the U.S. economy is that the use of such batteries isn’t limited to vehicles. Many in the industry believe that they will be used by utilities to store electricity generated by wind and solar farms. That means solar energy generated during the day that’s not needed can be saved to be consumed during the evening hours when the sun isn’t shining. Needham’s Michael Lew believes this battery market could be even bigger than the one for automotive use.

So while the bankruptcy for A123 is surely bad news for its investors, it could in the long run help to power a lot of American jobs.