What does Fisker Automotive tell us about clean energy?

Fisker Automotive's failure to repay a Department of Energy loan Monday is a blemish on the department's push to promote clean energy through public-private partnerships. Is it a sign of a broader policy failure, or do individual shortcomings distract from broader success?

By , Correspondent

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    Fisker Automotive founder Henrik Fisker (C) testifies during a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. For some, the company's decline is an example of flawed clean-energy policies that bet public money on losing technologies.
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Fisker Automotive's failure to make a loan payment to the US Department of Energy Monday is the latest evidence that the California-based electric carmaker is on the skids.

For some, the company's decline is an example of flawed clean-energy policies that bet public money on losing technologies.

The broader picture of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program is more nuanced. High-profile flops can eclipse the quieter, less headline-worthy successes of the program, first enacted in 2005 under President George W. Bush.

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But even when successful, the loan guarantee program's role in a company's profitability is subject to debate. Tesla Motors received $465 million from the Department of Energy and is exceeding sales targets and winning prestigious awards. Could they have done that with private investment alone, or was taxpayer money critical to their success?

"There are companies that would, and often do, receive investment from the private sector because their technology is profitable or because investors find their technology promising and want to pursue the risk," Nicholas Loris, an energy-policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in prepared testimony for a US House Oversight Committee meeting on Fisker Wednesday. 

"In these cases, the DOE’s loan partially offsets private-sector investments that would have been made without the federal backing," Mr. Loris added. 

Supporters say any cost-benefit analysis of the loan guarantee program must go beyond the individual successes or failures of the companies it funds. The loans stimulate job growth, they say, and underwrite the nation's transition from foreign oil dependency to renewable-energy future.

To date, the Department of Energy has committed or closed $35 billion in direct loans and loan guarantees, $8.4 billion of which is committed to automakers in the form of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program.

"In a global economy we don’t need to be the only player in these rapidly growing industries but we need to be one of the leaders if our economy is to remain strong into the future," Zoe Lipman, a former manager of the National Wildlife Federation's New Energy Solutions, wrote in testimony for Wednesday's hearing. "Effective, market based, public private partnerships like the ATVM, which make it less expensive to invest in U.S. facilities, and spur and attract business innovation are critical." 

That means the provision of long-term capital where private financing is not available, according to DOE. The department names among its successes: the modernization of 13 Ford Motor Co. factories and increased fuel efficiency in the company's most popular models; the construction of a 1.3-million-square-foot facility to make batteries for American-made Nissan Leafs; and the development of a six-passenger, wheelchair-accessible vehicle that will run on compressed natural gas.   

Fisker Automotive is not included in this list. It closed a $529 million DOE loan in 2010 only to receive $192 million before struggling with recalls, a bankrupt batterymaker, and hurricane Sandy, which damaged of 330 of its vehicles. By June 2011, the company was failing to meet required benchmarks and the Department of Energy ceased making disbursements on the loan. 

Henrik Fisker, a co-founder of Fisker Automotive who recently left the company, remains optimistic that there are still lessons to be learned and successes to be counted, even if Fisker's days are numbered.

"The technology that Fisker developed is cutting edge and could help pave the way for a new generation of American car manufacturing," Mr. Fisker testified. "A decade from now, I hope we will look back on the last five years as the moment when the United States retook its leadership position to define the future of the automobile." 

Energy: The transportation sector consumes 70 percent of the oil used in the US. EVs can held diminish that reliance. 

Environment: Depending on where their electricity comes from, EVs could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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