Last week the Department of Energy released part of the $25 billion in loans provided for through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, included in Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The delay in releasing these funds had been one of the longest running scandals in clean tech policy. Upon taking office, the Obama Administration vowed to expedite their release and Secretary Steven Chu had made finalizing rules needed to administer the program a key priority. In the first installment of the loans, Tesla, the VC-backed California maker of an all-electric sports car, founded by Ebay veterans, will receive $465 million to make its compact, all-electric Model S sedan. Ford will receive $5.9 billion to retool 11 factories across five states to improve the overall fuel efficiency of its fleet.  Finally, Nissan will receive $1.6 billion to retool a factory in Smyrna, Tennessee, to make an electric vehicle that is being developed and initially manufactured in Japan. The remainder of the money will be released next year.

DOE’s announcement comes on the heels of the release of its formal $3.9 billion smart grid funding solicitation last week. The Funding Opportunity Announcement spells out the conditions and terms for those seeking funding for smart grid investments under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the offical title of the stimulus bill signed into law earlier this year. These two developments, coming one after the other, are evidence that the DOE is moving rapidly on the President’s goal not only of getting money out into the economy to create jobs and drive demand, but also of making investments critical to a clean energy future.

In the case of the auto loans, they could not be more timely. Autos are a capital intensive business and with credit markets still impaired, it would have been very expensive or impossible for Tesla, for example, to borrow this money on its own. However, that does not mean that the loan is not good business for the government and Tesla. CEO Elon Musk indicated he thinks that Tesla may be able to repay the loan ahead of schedule. Tesla, despite some speed bumps in its early phase, is now profitable on a unit basis, meaning the approximately $120,000 price of its sleek sports car — which has a long waiting list — exceeds the cost of components.  Having also recently sold a stake to Daimler Benz, the company is now reasonably well capitalized. Recently, investor Steve Wesley indicated that Tesla’s sales are on track to pass $100 million, a common bar for conducting an IPO. If Tesla continues on its current track, it may be the first home run of the clean transportation industry. In any case, the DOE funding puts it on track to move from the sports car niche to the mainstream where it hopes to leverage the glamour associated with the roadster. While Ford and Nissan have greater access to the capital markets, these loans — provided for in the 2007 energy legislation in exchange for a commitment to higher fuel efficiency — will help achieve that goal.

In the case of the smart grid, the major barrier to moving forward has been undeveloped standards.  Normally, standards evolve slowly as industry players forge alliances and choose standards that already enjoy market adoption. In this case, the desire to stimulate the economy has accelerated this process. Secretary Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are overseeing an effort led by NIST to fast track standards for the grid to facilitate adoption. The disbursements made by DOE will indeed help establish standards insofar as the money spent will validate standards and increase adoption.

It is important that standards be as open and uniform as possible to create the broadest and fairest playing field for innovators to enter the smart grid technology market.  Because a smart grid is necessary to get clean energy online and also to drive the creation of new energy products and services, this is an area I believe is absolutely critical to determining whether clean technology can live up to its promise. 

While it remains to be seen how the smart grid will develop, these two announcements from DOE show that the Administration is on the case. These developments should be encouraging to anyone concerned about America’s clean energy future.