Oct. 20, 2011 — -- With the approval of the Obama administration, an electric car company that received a $529 million federal government loan guarantee is assembling its first line of cars in Finland, saying it could not find a facility in the United States capable of doing the work.
Vice President Joseph Biden heralded the Energy Department's $529 million loan to the start-up electric car company called Fisker as a bright new path to thousands of American manufacturing jobs. But two years after the loan was announced, the company's manufacturing jobs are still limited to the assembly of the flashy electric Fisker Karma sports car in Finland.
"There was no contract manufacturer in the U.S. that could actually produce our vehicle," the car company's founder and namesake told ABC News. "They don't exist here."
Henrik Fisker said the U.S. money has been spent on engineering and design work that stayed in the U.S., not on the 500 manufacturing jobs that went to a rural Finnish firm, Valmet Automotive.
"We're not in the business of failing; we're in the business of winning. So we make the right decision for the business," Fisker said. "That's why we went to Finland."
The loan to Fisker is part of a $1 billion bet the Energy Department has made in two politically connected California-based electric carmakers producing sporty -- and pricey -- cutting-edge autos. Fisker Automotive, backed by a powerhouse venture capital firm whose partners include former Vice President Al Gore, predicts it will eventually be churning out tens of thousands of electric sports sedans at the shuttered GM factory it bought in Delaware. And Tesla Motors, whose prime backers include PayPal mogul Elon Musk and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, says it will do the same in a massive facility tooling up in Silicon Valley.
An investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News found that the DOE's bet carries risks for taxpayers, has raised concern among industry observers and government auditors, and adds to questions about the way billions of dollars in loans for smart cars and green energy companies have been awarded. Fisker is more than a year behind rolling out its $97,000 luxury vehicle bankrolled in part with DOE money. While more are promised soon, just 40 of its Karma cars (below) have been manufactured and only two delivered to customers' driveways, including one to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio. Tesla's SEC filings reveal the start-up has lost money every quarter. And while its federal funding is intended to help it mass produce a new $57,400 Model S sedan, the company has no experience in a project so vast.
There is intense scrutiny of the decisions made by the Department of Energy as it invests billions of taxpayer dollars in alternative energy. The questions come in the wake of the administration's failed $535 million investment in solar panel maker Solyndra. The company's collapse, bankruptcy and raid by FBI agents generated a litany of questions about how the Energy Department doles out billions in highly sought after green energy seed money.
A key question, experts and investigators say, is whether another Solyndra is in the offing.
In interviews, executives with Tesla and Fisker said comparisons to Solyndra are unfounded. Each said the government's investments will ultimately pay off by supporting a fleet of electric cars that will ease the nation's dependence on fuel and benefit the environment.
"It's absolutely a worthwhile risk," said Diarmuid O'Connell, vice president of corporate and business development for Tesla Motors. "I absolutely believe it was a good bet for American taxpayers."Tesla has said its mass production of the sedan will ultimately lead to profitability.
Henrik Fisker, the renowned auto designer who founded the car company that carries his name, said his company holds tremendous promise and has accumulated $600 million in private financing.
When asked directly by ABC News if taxpayers should worry about the more than $500 million in federal funds on the line, he was emphatic: "No, I don't think they need to worry about it," Fisker said.When asked if Fisker might be the next Solyndra, he said, "Absolutely not."
The Roadster was produced in small quantities with the body assembled by Lotus in the United Kingdom and final assembly by the company at its facility in Menlo Park, Calif. The Model S, by contrast, will have much greater volume and be manufactured in Fremont, Calif. The company said production will begin next year.