Deadline Nears for Stimulus Bet for Battery Makers: Who's In the Game?

We’ve seen a flurry of announcements in the last week as electric vehicle battery makers prepare to request grant money under a Department of Energy program created as part of the stimulus package. There’s $2.4 billion available in all — not nearly enough for every ambitious startup and corporate giant in the country’s nascent energy storage market to take a piece. Contenders have until 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday to file their applications. By July, we should hear from the DOE about the winners in what’s shaping up to be a tough competition.

Planar Energy Devices CEO Scott Faris said in an interview Monday that while the DOE’s evaluation criteria for the battery program favors larger players with more commercial-scale manufacturing experience and access to matching funds, “Anybody has a shot if they define a reasonable niche, a path to profit-sharing and a reasonable cost of scalability.” The economic downturn, he said, has helped to level the playing field so that even relatively young startups stand a chance, albeit a slim one, for a big shot in the arm from Uncle Sam.

It doesn’t hurt that the DOE is giving the most weight — 40 percent of the total evaluation score — to a startup’s “technical approach and project management.” Bottom line: Fund winners will need to have killer technology and a reasonable assessment of costs, siting issues and other challenges. “Evidence of team’s experience and success in similar projects” comes under a qualifications and resources category that will be given a weight of only 15 percent in the evaluation process.

The Energy Department aims to notify award winners this summer and distribute awards by September. But DOE Deputy Press Secretary Jen Stutsman suggested in an email that there could be delays:

The timeline for award selection will depend on the number of applications received and the completeness of the plans proposed. We intend to make selections as soon as possible while maintaining the Recovery Act’s commitment to speed, transparency, and accountability.

Planar Energy announced plans last week to request $56 million under the program — called the Electric Drive Battery and Component Manufacturing Initiative — and the company, with Faris at the helm, has been neck-deep in the initiative since before President Barack Obama signed it into law. Faris said the Florida-based company briefed its state representatives early in the legislative process and is happy with the results: a program that’s designed to “stimulate things now, not four years from now,” with a heavy emphasis on getting technology out of labs and into large-scale production. According to the federal Funding Opportunity Announcement for the program, the DOE is looking for projects that will take no more than 2-3 years to complete.

The $2.4 billion for the program will be divided among seven project areas, with the largest portion — $1.2 billion — going toward battery pack and cell manufacturing facilities. The idea is for each grant to help facilitate the buildout of new or increased production capacity of some 20,000 to 100,000 plug-in car batteries (or the cells for an equivalent number of batteries) per year. Joining Planar Energy in the quest for this largest chunk of funds are General Electric and General Motors technology partner Sakti3, among others.

“The program is aimed at building a handful of larger facilities,” Faris told us yesterday afternoon. “It’s not meant to support small companies.” In March, Ener1 Chairman and CEO Charles Gassenheimer said in a call with shareholders that based on how the DOE and the Big Three’s U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium divvied up funds last year, he thought it would be reasonable for about half of the stimulus dollars for electric drive battery manufacturing to be split among startup A123Systems, Euro-American auto parts giant Johnson Controls-Saft and Ener1’s battery subsidiary, EnerDel.

The DOE plans to distribute the $1.2 billion chunk in grants of $100 million to $150 million for 7-8 projects, with each of them required to share at least half of the project cost. DOE chief Steven Chu, however, has the authority to allow exceptions for proposals with cost sharing as low as 25 percent.

Like Planar (requesting $56 million), Khosla-backed startup Sakti3 is requesting less than the target grant amount: just $15 million to set up commercial production, and it says it has secured commitments from private investors to put up another $15 million if the DOE stimulus funds come through.

In addition to cost-sharing ability, the DOE will be looking at key team members’ experience, whether materials are made in the U.S. and applicants’ partnerships — the agency wants to see teamwork among battery materials, component and pack makers, as well as solid customers. In the Funding Opportunity Announcement, a 34-page document that walks potential applicants through the nitty gritty of the application and evaluation process, the DOE encourages teams to include one or more potential customers’ end users in their applications. Statements of interest are good, but actual orders from the U.S. military or automakers or that would use the batteries made with stimulus bucks are even better.


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