Policy: Technology

Energy Department signals new loans from stalled advanced vehicles program

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Energy Department,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Auto Industry,Technology,Electric Vehicles

An Energy Department loan program for advanced vehicle technologies that has drawn GOP criticism is revving its engine once again.

The department announced changes to its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program Wednesday, which focuses on electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles, signaling revival of activity in a program that hasn't selected an awardee since 2011.

"The U.S. auto industry has evolved since the ATVM Program was established, and today we are presented with an opportunity to hit the accelerator on U.S. auto manufacturing growth," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in announcing the changes, which include expanding the program to auto parts manufacturers and smoothing out the application process.

The announcement builds on recent declarations of support from Moniz for the Energy Department's loan program. Loans ground to a halt in the waning days of his predecessor Steven Chu's tenure as Republicans jumped on a $535 million loan guarantee to failed solar panel maker Solyndra.

It comes after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recommended a budget that would eliminate "unobligated expenses" in DOE's loan portfolio, which includes the auto program. Moniz will testify Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has taken whacks at DOE loan programs in recent years.

"I bet it comes up tomorrow," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., told reporters Wednesday of the DOE's loan authority, though he said he hadn't been briefed on the auto program news.

While Republicans figure to dig in, the auto program, created during President George W. Bush's administration, has a high-profile success story.

Electric car manufacturer Tesla Automotive last year repaid its $450 million loan nine years ahead of schedule. Its Model S was named Consumer Reports' 2014 car of the year, and the company's stock closed at $216.97 on Tuesday.

But the signal to award new loans — there's more than $16 billion left to disburse — will likely to draw criticism from Republicans, who say the program creates winners and losers in the energy market.

GOP lawmakers point to Fisker Automotive, which snagged a $529 million loan through the program, as a reason for caution.

The company filed for bankruptcy last year and was snatched up by Chinese company Wanxiang Group in February. DOE had issued $192 million of the loan, and clawed back $53 million of that total.

"As a result of President Obama's misguided policies, the Department of Energy Loan Guarantee program is quickly becoming a highly utilized stimulus program for foreign investors," House Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in November.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. April 3 to specify that DOE had issued $192 million of the loan.

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