At a conclave of automotive and green journalists touring Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee electric battery plant yesterday that I attended, one of the topics coming up in some discussions had nothing to do with the Leaf, but rather focused on the fate of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) loan-backed Fisker Automotive. The once-promising plug-in hybrid developer, some agreed at the Nissan event, was slowly circling the drain. Now word has come from the DOE it is playing hardball to make sure it gets some of that loan money back before Fisker is washed away.
The DOE, according to multiple media outlets today, seized $21 million from Fisker that had been put aside as part of a reserve account in case an unfortunate event occurred. The event in question the DOE anticipated might happen? Fisker is said to have missed a $10 million payment on a $192 million loan that originally could have been as big as $529 million. The car company had not been able to draw down on that full amount, which at least softens the blow for American taxpayers a little.
In a statement issued to the media, the DOE said that “given the obvious difficulties the company is facing, we are taking strong and appropriate action on behalf of taxpayers.” This includes such moves, according to the federal agency, as stopping distributing the loan in June 2011 and seizing the company’s approximately $21 million reserve account on April 11 -- from funds that came from the company’s sales and investors, not the loan -- to apply those funds to the loan.
Even with these actions, the DOE is still out $171 million. If, and how, this can be gotten back from Fisker is a big question at the moment. Fisker has struggled for some time to right its own ship, laying off over three-quarters of its workforce, halting production of its luxury Karma, seeing the resignation of one of its founders and more. It is rapidly being considered the next Solyndra by those who were opposed to DOE loans to cleantech companies in the first place, with a hearing before a subcommittee of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives set for tomorrow entitled “Green Energy Oversight: Examining the Department of Energy’s Bad Bet on Fisker Automotive.”
Looking back over the annals of Fisker’s short history, Vice President Biden stated in mid-2010 when the DOE loan was issued that “the story of Fisker is a story of ingenuity of an American company, a commitment to innovation by the U.S. government and the perseverance of the American auto industry.” Even though the company has sold around 2,500 Karmas, this may now prove to be more of an albatross for the Obama administration and less of an innovation.