A large green-car loan fund that was created in the Bush years and which began dispensing money under the Obama White House dodged a bullet late Monday.
But the spotlight turned on the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program in this dispute may keep the fund in the cross hairs for the next budget showdown.
Conservative members of Congress this time agreed to drop efforts to trim the $25 billion pool of money by $1.5 billion to fund disaster relief as part of the resolution that would keep the government operating until mid-November.
ATVM is a big target because it has lent only $9.1 billion of the $25 billion to just six companies, though it has 18 applications for about $10 billion total under review.
And automakers are doing well financially, while American buyers already are showing more interest in fuel-efficient vehicles, lessening pressure to subsidize building such vehicles.
Meanwhile, the bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra earlier this month has heightened scrutiny of such federal green loan programs.
The ATVM doesn't yet have a lot of success to show, either.
Loans have been doled out for a pair of auto start-up companies, Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, which still are far from being ready to produce the cars for which they primarily received the loans. Ford Motor -- which has become one of the most profitable automakers, with net income of $2.4 billion in the second quarter alone -- also is the biggest loan recipient to date, with nearly $6 billion. And Nissan, a Japanese automaker, will make electric-car batteries in the U.S. in the future.
Even alternative-energy car advocates find themselves scratching their heads when it comes to the program.
"Washington never should have been picking winners and losers in the first place," says Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal, a magazine chronicling the alternative-energy car industry. The program, he says, has placed far too great an emphasis on electrification of the auto industry without paying heed to other promising, more near-term technologies, such as natural gas, biomass and clean diesel.
With the investments taking longer to pay off than some expected, Chelsea Sexton, a longtime electric-car advocate based in California, says of the program: "Based on the way it's going so far, it should end."
The program loans so far have been in keeping with President Obama's pledge to put a million electrified cars, fully electric or hybrid, on the road by 2015. And the Energy Department also touts the effects in jobs saved or created, counting more than 40,000, including 33,000 at Ford alone, which has several electric vehicles on the way.
The program, and similar ones, has thrust the government into the role of venture capitalist, picking which companies to back, and also getting put on the hook for any losses.
Left out in the cold
Those not among the chosen have been some of the program's severest critics. One is a small firm in San Diego County, Calif., that made waves a few years ago with an egg-shaped electric car, the Aptera. Steve Fambro, co-founder of Aptera who has since moved on to an agricultural venture, says he recalls showing up at events with a drivable version of his car only to see rivals push mock-ups off a trailer.
Yet some of them got money; his company did not.
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