Electric cars and the Department of Energy: Two giant loans, two different paths

By Ronnie Greene, Center for Public Integrity 

Tesla electric cars

Tesla electric cars

They are two cutting-edge electric car makers, headquartered in California and backed by powerhouses of politics and money. In 2009, each secured half-billion dollar loan commitments from President Obama’s Department of Energy to help transform their clean-energy cars from drawing boards to showrooms.

But this week, the fortunes of Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive took sharply divergent turns.

On Wednesday, the Energy Department announced that Tesla repaid the balance of its $465 million government loan nine years early. Fisker, meantime, has ceased making cars as it weighs potential bankruptcy, confronts a $171 million loan balance with DOE and, last month, faced questions from the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.

In October 2011, The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News explored the Energy Department’s risky $1 billion bet on two companies lauded for their innovative design, but facing warnings from experts over the marketability of cars that, in some models, carry price tags hovering around six figures.

In announcing Tesla’s loan repayment this week, the department said the risks were worth taking, coming at a time the industry itself suffered a deep downturn. “The lack of financing for the automotive industry was critical and potentially lethal,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement. “Providing these loans was a calculated risk — but it was the right decision for the country.”


Yet for Fisker, whose loan was heralded by Vice President Joe Biden, the risks remain ripe. The company’s vision of developing a muscular Karma and more practical sedan faltered amid a series of setbacks from slow- moving government approvals to recalls and financial downturns involving suppliers.

DOE initially agreed to loan Fisker $529 million to help the company develop two lines of plug-in hybrids. Of that, $359 million would help the company re-open a shuttered former GM plant in Delaware, where Fisker would develop “Project NINA” — a mass-market hybrid sedan to be called the Atlantic. “The company estimates it will build 75,000-100,000 of these highly efficient vehicles every year by 2014,” DOE announced in 2009.

The remaining money would help Fisker complete its luxury Karma.

“We understood a new chapter had to be written, a new chapter in which we strengthen American manufacturing by investing in innovation,” Biden said in 2009, citing Fisker’s loan.

Yet reality collided with those projections, and Fisker Automotive has not come close to meeting its goals.

The company began drawing down on the DOE loan in 2010, and by the middle of 2011, had collected $192 million in government money, records show. But then, as Fisker encountered production hiccups, the Energy Department cut off the money spigot. DOE has recouped $21 million of the $192 million it loaned Fisker, leaving the company $171 million in debt to the government as it weighs a potential bankruptcy.

Testifying before the Oversight and Reform Committee late last month, co-founder Henrik Fiskersaid the company had sold 2,000 Karmas worldwide. He cited a series of setbacks that, like a domino, helped topple production of the company’s fleet.

In 2011, Fisker said, regulatory approvals for the Karma in the United States “took longer than anticipated.” Then, after the company began delivering the car to customers, two parts provided by outside suppliers had to be recalled. “The recalls generated bad publicity, diverted management attention, impacted sales, and further delayed our production schedules,” Fisker said.

Then came a bigger blow: In October 2012, Fisker’s lithium ion battery manufacturer filed for bankruptcy protection. Fisker’s exclusive supplier — another recipient of DOE funding — stopped manufacturing batteries.

“Fisker Automotive had to cease production of the Karma,” Fisker said. “We explored options for other battery suppliers, but due to large investment costs and long development cycles, we could not secure arrangements that would allow us to resume production immediately.

“This was a crippling factor in restarting production of the Karma.”


With Hurricane Sandy came more bad news. More than 330 Karmas, awaiting shipment at Port Newark in New Jersey, were “damaged beyond repair during this unforeseen natural disaster. This constituted a major share of the company’s inventory and resulted in a drastic loss in revenue,” Fisker said.

Fisker’s other car, the Atlantic, has yet to go into production.

Henrik Fisker stepped down as CEO in 2012, and resigned from the board in March. Yet he told the committee the company’s technology earned honors, and said Fisker Automotive “still has the potential to build on these achievements” if it can secure financing.

“From the outset, Fisker Automotive aimed to be a new American car company, setting pioneering standards for low-emission technology and cutting-edge design,” he said. “I sincerely hope that the company can find a way to move forward and repay its Department of Energy loans.”

Tesla, the other California electric car company backed by DOE money, repaid its loan this week.

Both companies received backing from heavyweights in business and politics. Fisker’s prime supporters included the California venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose partners include former Vice President Al Gore. Tesla’s prime backers include venture capitalist and Obama fundraiser Steve Westly, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

While Fisker searches for a potential buyer to help salvage the company, Tesla has, of late, pointed to headlines: Its Model S was recently named Motor Trend Car of the Year. On its website, Tesla prices the sedan from $62,400-$87,400, depending on the model — after a $7,500 federal tax credit. Its six-figure Roadster sports car, it said, is sold out in North America.

Tesla’s $465 million loan, the DOE said, enabled the company to open a shuttered plant in Fremont, California, “and to produce battery packs, electric motors, and other powertrain components.”

In a brief interview Thursday, Diarmuid O’Connell, Tesla’s vice president of business development, said the company raised money to pay off the DOE loan this week.

Asked why the two electric car companies have forged disparate paths, he provided a concise answer.

“Fisker and Tesla have always been on different trajectories, our business models have always been different,” O’Connell said. “What we are focusing now on is building market.”

For the Energy Department, the next focus could be Fisker — and bankruptcy court, should the company take that route. On Thursday, energy officials did not respond to questions about what steps the department would take if Fisker files for bankruptcy, or how much the government anticipates recovering.


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