Government Money: Fisker Outshines Tesla, Europe Challenges America

Last Updated Sep 23, 2009 6:28 AM EDT

The Department of Energy, in its new capacity as Santa Claus for cleantech, has just finished allocating another billion dollars in grants and loans to various companies. As usual, the breakdown of who got what is rather interesting.

Coming in with the big win is Fisker Automotive, which scored a $528.7 million loan from the DOE to build a plug-in electric vehicle.

Fisker is a high-end electric car startup that is very similar to Tesla Motors -- similar enough, in fact, that Tesla filed suit against Fisker when the latter started up, alleging intellectual property infringement. Both companies planned on making what boiled down to a pricey race-car for the people with big wallets, then moving on to a somewhat more reasonably priced (at around $50,000) sedan.

But Fisker is also a newer company than Tesla, with less venture capital behind it, less (or less visible) support from politicians, and less sales, since Tesla has put about 700 cars on the road to date, versus its competitor's zero. Fisker plans to start shipping cars later this year.

So why, one might wonder, would the DOE award Fisker more money than it gave Tesla, which received a (still substantial) $465 million? Sure, the other thing that Tesla has had more of than Fisker is scandals, but there's probably no place to factor that into a bureaucratic funding decision.

Instead, it seems likely that the DOE is signaling its preference for a specific technology, and the one big difference between the two companies: Fisker's vehicles will be hybrids that can switch to gasoline when their batteries are dead, while Tesla is making all-electric vehicles. Perhaps the DOE thinks consumers will be more willing to adopt hybrids.

The loans are to jump-start research and manufacturing for alternative transportation. Separately, the DOE also awarded $550 million to a set of 25 companies.

Beyond the smaller awards (like $53,648 to a hamburger chain called Bob's Big Boy), European companies cleaned up, taking a total of $434 million. Here's a breakdown, with the project name listed first, the company and its country of origin second, and the amount third:

  • Barton Wind Farm -- Iberdrola (Spain) -- $93.4 million
  • Barton Chapel Wind Farm -- Iberdrola -- $72.6 million
  • Farmers City Wind Farm -- Iberdrola -- $84.9 million
  • Enel Salt Wells -- Enel (Italy) -- $21.2 million
  • Enel Stillwater -- Enel -- $40.3 million
  • Pyron Wind Farm -- E.ON (Germany) -- $121.9 million
Maybe there's a reason that the DOE didn't specify the company being awarded the money on the list it released; this round of grants looks embarrassing for American companies. The only ones to join the eight-figure club from were the Bull Creek Wind Farm, which is being built by Eurus Energy and RES Americas, and the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, who grow sugar cane for biofuels.

Future funding rounds may include more players from the home team, assuming wind projects don't figure as strongly. Then again, the DOE has a lot of money and a mandate to get rid of it quickly, and wind, an industry dominated by Europeans, is the most mature renewable technology around; so we may be in for more of the same.