Good news for green car companies and start-ups: The Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program is back on track.
I know, I know, it sounds like a dry government program of interest to a few bureaucrats, but there’d likely be no Tesla without it. And ATVM is ramping up to give big awards to battery and other green car companies and suppliers, from a fund that had $25 billion in it (and still has $16 billion left).
Tesla got $465 million in a dry period before the Model S launch, then paid it back in 2013, five years early. “We had plans to fund the introduction of the Model S via commercial sources of capital and the proceeds of the Roadster program,” Tesla said. “However, given the economic climate at the time (recall the ‘Great Recession’), accessing those sources of capital would have taken time and significantly delayed the launch of the Model S.” ATVM enabled the S to roll out in 2012, and everything good that’s happened to Tesla since is a result of that.
Other companies that got helped by ATVM include Nissan, which got $1.4 billion and would probably not be building Leafs in Tennessee without it; and Ford, which now has a range of electric vehicles and has sold 500,000 fuel-efficient 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 engines for America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 truck. That program, with the money earmarked to retool factories to go green, was supported by ATVM’s $5.9 billion.
Did ATVM fund duds? You bet. Fisker flamed out after taking $529 million (only $192 million was actually paid out). Bad results like this made the DOE gun-shy about giving out more of the money, and it didn’t help that the GOP was out for blood with cries of “Solyndra! Solyndra!” Later applicants complained that they jumped through hoops, only to have a few more of them laid in their pathway. Aptera, Coda and Bright were just three of the companies that went down in flames around that time, blaming the DOE’s failure to fund them.
The General Accounting Office last year complained about a “lengthy and burdensome” application and review process for ATVM, with stacks of documents needed to stay active. For some, the “costs of participating outweigh the benefits.”
A Media Matters survey reveals a press corps more interested in reporting on the loan program’s failures than its successes. Eighty percent of the Tesla stories in 2013 failed to mention the loan, it said, but only 16 percent of the Fisker pieces left that out.
That brings us up to now. ATVM hasn’t made a loan since 2011, but Peter Davidson, executive director of DOE’s loan programs office, says, “We’re open for business again. The energy secretary made the announcement a month ago, and we’re rebuilding the pipeline to ATVM applicants.”
The new process will be more user friendly, Davidson says, and that includes the ability to apply online. “We’ve also stepped up efforts to have pre-application consultations with the companies—we’re happy to talk one-on-one. It’s helped clarify some things that caused confusion in the supplier community.”
Davidson says one thing people were confused about is whether ATVM’s doors were even open. “Many would-be applicants thought it was a stimulus-era program and that it had been stopped by law in 2011,” he said. “They thought we were shut down.”
According to Davidson, “Ninety-seven percent of the ATVM portfolio is performing well. That’s a record that commercial banks would be very proud to have.” He pointed out that all previous loans have been to carmakers, but suppliers can definitely apply now, including companies involved in lightweighting cars with aluminum or carbon fiber, building advanced transmissions and low rolling-resistance tires. Battery companies are eligible, too, even though they’ve been supported by other government programs.
Would-be EV entrepreneurs may be a bit gun-shy these days following the failure of the aforementioned companies, plus many more. But innovation is still happening. I was just talking to Subhash Dhar, founder and chairman of Michigan-based Energy Power Systems (and a veteran of Ener1, Ovonic and the ill-fated Envia), and he says he can perform miracles with an old standby, the lead-acid battery. That’s what’s under the hood of your gas guzzler now.
Lead-acid batteries have a quarter the energy density of lithium-ion (today’s standard), but they’re really cheap. Dhar says he’s ramped up the cycle life and increased the power so they’re ideal for start-stop systems, micro-hybrids with regenerative braking, and even full hybrids like the Prius. “We didn’t change the chemistry, but we changed the micro-structure,” Dhar said. “The power is up 2.5 times, and the cycle life up by a factor of six or seven.”
Skeptics are going to scoff at the prospect of lead-acid hybrid cars, but Dhar’s technology is worth a look. He claims he can increase a car’s fuel efficiency six percent with a start-stop system, and as much as 20 percent in a micro-hybrid with regen braking. “And it can all be done with a battery of just one to 1.5 kilowatt-hours,” he said. The battery, he claims, would “go up to 300,000 cycles” and last nine or 10 years, at a cost of about $110 apiece in a start-stop system.
If Dhar (who's ramping up a pilot plant in Troy, Michigan) can convince the DOE of all this, there might be an ATVM loan in his future. Hey, what about you? Got something cool? Apply here!