In news that's sure to provide fresh fodder for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ahead of his debate tonight with President Obama, an electric-car battery maker backed by a quarter-billion-dollar grant from the Obama administration filed today for bankruptcy protection.
The company, A123 Systems Inc., received $249 million through the Department of Energy in 2009 and earned praise from Obama himself in 2010 for helping to keep jobs in the United States.
Today, DOE sought to put the best face on the bankruptcy filing by noting that A123 is working on a consolidation plan with Johnson Controls Inc. in Milwaukee to sell two Michigan manufacturing plants along with other assets.
"In an emerging industry, it's very common to see some firms consolidate with others as the industry grows and matures," DOE spokesman Dan Leistikow said in a blog post.
DOE expects the advanced battery market to grow from $5 billion in 2010 to an estimated $50 billion in 2020 and has awarded about $2 billion in grants to companies in 20 states to build parts for electric vehicles.
Leistikow noted in his blog post that as part of a bankruptcy filing, A123 announced it had obtained bridge financing from Johnson Controls to continue operation of its facilities.
"A123, which has been building batteries for electric vehicles as well as for the nation's power grid, quickly established itself as an innovative player in the market," Leistikow said. "Today's news means that A123's manufacturing facilities and technology will continue to be a vital part of America's advanced battery industry."
A123 had been struggling financially for months and was recently looking to a Chinese auto manufacturer for a bailout (Greenwire, Aug. 9).
The company said today it wasn't moving forward with the Chinese deal.
Late last year, A123 reduced its staff by more than a third at two Michigan plants after a reduction in orders from the troubled luxury electric vehicle manufacturer Fisker Automotive Inc. Fisker, which builds the luxury plug-in Karma, received more than half a billion dollars through a DOE loan program in 2010. That was about one year after DOE approved a separate $535 million loan guarantee to the now-bankrupt Solyndra solar energy company.
Fisker, Solyndra and other recipients of green energy funding were highlighted two weeks ago in the first presidential debate between Romney and Obama.
"Don't forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years' worth of breaks, into solar and wind, into Solyndra, and Fisker and Tesla. ... I had a friend who said you don't just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers," Romney said. "This is not the kind of policy you want to have, if you want to get America energy secure."
Today, the Republican National Committee quickly tweeted a link to a story about A123's demise, and Republican members of Congress jumped on the news.
Ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), who's running for Senate in Michigan, used the news to bash both the Obama administration and his opponent, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D).
"Obama/Stabenow choose badly with $'s borrowed from China! A123 goes bankrupt and our kids are left holding the bag. Enough is enough!" he wrote on Twitter.
But DOE noted that the company was on the receiving end of bipartisan support and federal funding during the George W. Bush administration.
In his blog, Leistikow included a link to a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu written in May 2009 in which Hoekstra and every other member of the Michigan delegation at the time -- including now-House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R) -- expressed support for companies that were applying at the time for Recovery Act Funding.
Among the companies noted in the letter is A123.
"In summary, Mr. Secretary, establishing a North American battery center of gravity in Michigan will significantly improve the federal government's ability to more swiftly meet its ambitious vehicle electrification goals, and will pay dividends across the industrial Midwest through development of a strong supply chain," the letter states.
"As the Department begins its review process, it is clear that our nation needs to 'get it right the first time' in deploying these recovery grant dollars. We urge you to strongly consider the importance of deploying the unmatched abilities and resources being offered to you from a state that has time and again persevered through regional and national challenges."