Ener1 becomes latest energy aid recipient in trouble

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Electric-car battery maker Ener1 Inc., whose shares were delisted from the NASDAQ stock market Oct. 28, is the latest recipient of U.S. Energy Department aid to run into financial trouble and draw congressional scrutiny.

New York-based Ener1, which has major operations in Indiana, was promised $118.5 million in department grants in 2009 from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package, which also gave money to Johnson Controls Inc. and A123 Systems Inc. for electric-battery production.

The Energy Department, which faces congressional investigations for support it gave failed solar-panel maker Solyndra LLC, is “closely monitoring the status” of Ener1, whose Indiana-based EnerDel unit received the agency’s grant, spokesman Damien LaVera said in an e-mail.

“The U.S. will have increased our capacity to produce electric-drive vehicles batteries from virtually zero in 2008 up to 500,000 per year in 2015,” LaVera said of the 30 advanced battery and electric-vehicle component plants to which the agency has given money. “These investments are building domestic capacity for manufacturing advanced-technology vehicles and components.”

Republican lawmakers have questioned the Energy Department’s $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, which filed for bankruptcy after struggling to raise private financing, and Russian steelmaker Severstal OAO, which received a guarantee from an electric-vehicle loan fund.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who is vice chairman of the House Science Committee, on Monday said he’ll propose legislation seeking an independent audit of all Energy Department loan guarantees. The Obama administration on Oct. 28 ordered a review of the programs that will be conducted by former Treasury Department official Herbert Allison.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last week asked Congress to investigate loans made to luxury electric-car makers Tesla Motors Inc., which projects its first annual profit in 2013, and Fisker Automotive Inc., which missed its internal production schedule after awaiting U.S. certification of its first car. Yesterday, Beacon Power Corp., an energy storage company that received $43 million from the same program that supported Solyndra, filed for bankruptcy after failing to attract private financing.

The loan program, created by President George W. Bush’s administration, was a good idea in the quest to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil, said Theodore O’Neill, a New York- based analyst at Wunderlich Securities.

“In 2008, when the U.S. government also owned the car companies, it seemed like a brilliant idea to address our oil dependency by creating an electric-car industry using the levers that the government had at hand,” he said in an interview.

Chrysler Group LLC and A123 Systems, which makes plug-in car batteries, are still seeking loan guarantees under the Energy Department’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which House Republicans tried to cut in September. The program lent Tesla $465 million and Fisker $529 million.

It has $4 billion remaining after also giving loans to Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., maker of the Leaf plug-in electric car. Chrysler expects the Energy Department is “coming to decision time” on the company’s application for a $3.5 billion guarantee, CEO Sergio Marchionne said last week on a conference call.

The vehicle loans come from one of three Energy Department loan programs. Two others, including the one that issued Solyndra’s $535 million guarantee, are intended to spur development of alternative-energy sources.

Under Obama’s economic stimulus package, the Energy Department awarded grants in an attempt to create a U.S. electric-car industry.

Ener1, which is trading on Pink Sheets since its NASDAQ delisting, has received $55 million of its grant so far. It must match any further U.S. funding dollar-for-dollar, LaVera said.

The company, in an Oct. 25 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said it wouldn’t challenge the NASDAQ delisting following its failure to file a required document with the SEC by June 30.

Brian Sinderson, a company spokesman, didn’t respond to a request for additional comment.

As recently as January, Vice President Joe Biden used an EnerDel plant in Mount Comfort to showcase the administration’s goal of having 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.

Ener1’s loan application received bipartisan support from Indiana lawmakers, and the company got a $6.5 million Energy Department advanced-battery grant and a $4 million Defense Department research and development contract under the George W. Bush administration.

Smaller companies such as Ener1, which had 469 employees at the end of 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, came into the battery market later and are trying to compete against established competitors, said Shu Sun, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“The electric battery market at the moment is a highly competitive one,” Sun, based in London, said in an interview. “It will be dominated by Japanese and South Korean players that have ramped up volume significantly and have secured more partners and customers. Smaller players like Ener1 will struggle in such a competitive market.”

This year through Sept. 30, 11,094 plug-in Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts had been sold, according to Autodata Corp. That was less than 1 percent of the 4.7 million cars sold during the same time period.

O’Neill also blamed U.S. fuel-economy standards taking effect for model-year 2012 vehicles for limiting demand for batteries made by Ener1 and its competitors. The standards can be met by using a technology known as stop-start that saves gasoline while cars idle. Johnson Controls is among the companies whose batteries use the technology.

That may mean vehicles can meet the 2012-2016 U.S. standards by adding the technology to conventional batteries, which are cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries used in hybrid and plug-in cars.

“Where it went off the rails is all the major car companies figured out in 2009 that they could use a different technology to meet the emissions standards in the U.S. and in Europe,” said O’Neill, who rates Ener1 shares “hold.” “That technology is start-stop.”

Ener1, which replaced its CEO in September, can still succeed if it finds ways to earn revenue from more diverse sources, Sun said.

“For these companies, it will be extremely difficult to secure any large-scale production contracts,” he said. “So they will have to look at other revenue, other applications for their battery products.”

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