News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Troubled Electric Car Maker in Hot Seat in Congress

Fisker Karmas awaiting sale on a lot | Photo: David Harris/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Representatives of Fisker Automotive, which missed its first payment on a 2009 loan from the Department of Energy this week, are testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Wednesday to answer questions about that loan, which Republicans are calling "Solyndra on Wheels." The beleaguered manufacturer of electric cars hasn't built a vehicle in nearly a year.

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Despite a $529 million loan from the Department of Energy, the automake, whose sole production model, the Fisker Karma, suffered a string of mechanical problems including dramatic fires caused by the cars' batteries. The $108,000 MSRP Karma earned a catastrophic review from Consumer Reports, the video version of which is embedded here:

The utter flop of the Fisker Karma is embarrassing enough: the timing of Fisker's missing its payment on the DOE loan even more so. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is run by Republican San Diego-area Representative Darrell Issa, who's made a bit of a personal crusade out of harassing the DOE and its loan recipients. Missing a payment on the loan the same week as the company faces Issa on the witness stand is definitely an awkward position to be in.

As we've mentioned before, Issa is no ideological purist when it comes to DOE loans to struggling electric car companies. In 2010, Issa wrote to then Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging that a loan to now-bankrupt electric car manufacturer Aptera be expedited. Among Aptera's investors were the Beall Family Trust, controlled by Republican activist and former CEO of Rockwell International Don Beall, whose New Majority PAC has donated at least $15,000 to Issa's campaigns over the last few years.

Nonetheless, for House Republican leadership any stick will do with which to beat the Executive Branch, and right now Fisker is a very tempting stick indeed. Preliminary reports out of the hearing room indicate that former CEO Henrik Fisker, who was forced to step down in March, maintains that the company could bounce back. That opinion is not widely shared. Take a look at Seth Fletcher's devastating critique of Fisker published Tuesday over at Scientific American; given just how bad an idea that DOE loan was, it may be that Fisker does damage to the DOE's loan program that republicans on the Hill weren't quite able to do with "Solyndra" as their battle cry.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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