Battery Maker Ener1 Moves Away From Think, Towards DOE Funds

Last year the businesses of energy storage company Ener1 was closely tied with electric vehicle maker Think. When Think hit the financial skids late last year and was denied government aid, Ener1, whose subsidiary EnerDel has a $70 million battery supply contract with Think, swooped in with a $5.69 million bridge loan. Likewise when Think halted production last year, Ener1 itself needed rescuing in the form of a $30 million line of credit. But Ener1 CEO Charles Gassenheimer explained to us in an interview yesterday at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, that the future of Ener1 may be less hitched to Think than it once was because of two developments: Ener1’s expanding customer base, and what could be a multimillion-dollar boost from the U.S. government.

According to Gassenheimer, the company has tripled its business to 90 customers in the last five months (helped along by the acquisition of South Korea-based battery maker Enertech in October). “We’re more diverse than we were when Think got into trouble,” Gassenheimer said. Although he is hardly writing the company off — Gassenheimer said that the Norwegian automaker’s business plan “seems to be more intact” and more credible now with new leadership in place, and that the automaker has done “necessary cost cutting.”

Ener1 also has the U.S. government throwing its weight — and considerable cash — behind domestic battery development and manufacturing. The Department of Energy advanced Ener1’s $480 million loan application to the final evaluation stage about a month ago, and now has billions of dollars in grants to distribute to battery makers under the stimulus package. Noting that Ener1 is the only battery maker to “stand up a plant on shore” (in Indiana), Gassenheimer said that while he’s not banking on the DOE loans, “I cannot envision a scenario where government is not going to be part of our future.”

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