Green Wheels: A promising plug-in hybrid dies

VehiclesEconomy, Business and FinanceServices and ShoppingAutomotive EquipmentManufacturing and EngineeringDuke Energy CorporationSolyndra LLC

The news was saddening and, for me, totally out of the blue: one of my favorite EV companies was closing. Since it was launched in 2008, I've been closely following an Indiana-based company called Bright Automotive, which came up with a great plug-in hybrid delivery van that had a great deal of commercial potential (especially for fleet buyers).

Bright was a spinoff of the innovative Rocky Mountain Institute, with investors that included and the Turner Foundation. A lot of companies, from Frito-Lay to Duke Energy, expressed interest in buying large numbers of the vans to green their fleets. It looked good, but Bright fell into the "Valley of Death" that many green start-ups experience — it had significant interest and $17 million in early funding, but not enough to get to the manufacturing stage. I went to Indiana and drove the one prototype car, and absolutely loved it. But positive articles from me weren't enough to get that car on the road.

The company had applied for a $450 million loan through the Department of Energy-managed Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) program, but it was taking forever to process. Then, good news! Bright scored a $5 million investment from GM Ventures, the investor arm of General Motors. Here was outside validation that Bright's technology worked, and was valued by the auto industry.

It turned out that the DOE had urged Bright to land an automaker partner, so the GM deal should have turned the federal loan (now reduced to an ask of $314 million) into a slam-dunk. But it didn't. A Bright vice president, Mike Brylawski, told me that the agency had told Bright that the loan approval was weeks away. "They didn't say it was 130 weeks away," he said. Last week, he said Bright finally got its fourth conditional approval letter, and it called for the company to raise $345 million in private capital before it could spend the government's $314 million. That was one hoop too far, and Bright decided to end the process.

It's obvious that, in the wake of the Solyndra debacle, the DOE is far more worried about making another bad loan than it is about getting a reputation for not awarding any money. That's unfortunate, because the ATVM money pot is $25 billion, and the company has only awarded $8 billion. Aptera, which made a three-wheeled battery electric, similarly died on the vine trying to get a DOE loan. It's a cautionary tale that points surviving companies toward the private markets.

The last big ATVM loan the DOE made was $529 million to Fisker in 2009. That loan hasn't gone bad—Fisker is in production, churning out 20 cars a week. But Fisker missed some loan provisions, and is renegotiating ongoing terms with the DOE. It's drawn down $193 million, and that may be all the money it gets.

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