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The future of the American auto industry is getting off to a slow start.

The Energy Department has $25 billion to make loans to hasten the arrival of the next generation of automotive technology — electric-powered cars. But no money has been allocated so far, even though the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program, established in 2007, has received applications from 75 companies, including start-ups as well as the three Detroit automakers.

With General Motors and Chrysler making repeat visits to Washington to ask for bailout money to stave off insolvency, some members of Congress are starting to ask why the Energy Department money is not flowing yet. The loans also are intended to help fulfill President Obama’s campaign promise of putting one million electric cars on American roads by 2015.

“Politicians are breaking down the door asking why the money isn’t being sent out,” said Michael Carr, counsel to the Senate Energy Committee, which oversees the Energy Department.

It is a question that Lachlan W. Seward, director of the program, says he hears a lot these days. “We’re moving with a sense of urgency,” said Mr. Seward, who also oversaw the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Board from 1981 to 1984. “But at the same time we are trying to do this in a responsible way that reflects prudent credit policy and taxpayer protections.”

Energy Department staff members said they were still sifting through loan applications, dozens of which arrived on the filing deadline of Dec. 31. On top of that, another $2 billion is coming to the department from the $787 billion stimulus package. That money will be used to develop the advanced battery technology needed to power electric cars, batteries more durable, safer and cheaper than anything available today.

Until now, the program has gotten caught in the shifting priorities of two administrations. The program was not funded until September 2008. Then, the Bush administration considered using the Energy Department fund to help bail out G.M. and Chrysler, an idea that was later rejected. After that, President Obama had to name a new cabinet. As soon as Steven Chu took office as energy secretary, some members of Congress started applying pressure on the fund.

Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, wrote Secretary Chu on Jan. 23, two days after he was sworn in, to say the agency is “under an obligation to issue the loans as soon as possible.”

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, who have led a bipartisan effort to increase fuel-mileage standards, followed with a letter calling for an “aggressive timeline” in issuing loans.

In response, Dr. Chu announced last week that the first loans would be made by late April or early May, adding that the program’s paperwork would be simplified and more staff would be hired.

There are complicating factors. Money can be given only to companies and projects that are deemed “financially viable.” G.M. and Chrysler, which have applied for a combined $13 billion from the Energy Department, must wait until the end of March for the Obama administration to decide whether the companies’ restructuring plans would make them viable.

The program’s small staff — around a dozen part- and full-time employees — must also sort through complicated proposals, up to 1,000 pages long. Many of the applicants have lined up members of Congress to pressure the department. Meanwhile, smaller companies say they fear the bulk of the money will be directed to the Detroit automakers.

Still, with credit markets tight, the program represents a rare source of financing to develop electric-vehicle technology.

“No one else out there will take on this risk,” said Mr. Seward. “It reminds me of the time at the dawn of the auto age when you had hundreds of companies making hundreds of kinds of cars and then they all coalesced. We are back in that era of invention again.”

The Energy Department has whittled the initial 75 loan applications, which seek a total $38 billion, down to 25 for a second round of reviews. General Motors is requesting $8.3 billion, earmarking a portion for the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Ford Motor is asking for $5 billion for a variety of electric car retooling programs and Chrysler, a unit of Cerberus Capital Management, is asking for around $5 billion. Even Nissan said it has submitted an application for one of its American plants that meet the program’s criteria.

Other applications are coming from battery developers. A123 Systems has asked for $1.8 billion to build a next-generation battery plant in Detroit, and Ener1, a maker of lithium-ion batteries, is asking for $480 million.

“Failure is not an option,” said Charles Gassenheimer, chief executive of Ener1. “We are confident we would build batteries without government help. But government help is necessary to launching the business in a mass way in the United States.”

Japan, Korea and China are currently the leaders in producing the batteries used in cellphones, computers and other portable electronics.

Advanced Mechanical Products, a Cincinnati company that converts Saturn Sky sports cars into electric vehicles, has asked for a $20 million loan. Stephen Burns, the company’s chief executive, even dropped off his application by driving one of the all-electric cars to the agency and giving members of Congress a ride.

“Getting the money would be a big step for us,” said Mr. Burns. “We can function without it. But with it, we’d be on steroids.”

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The electronics chain is getting into the motorcycle sales business, with plans to sell Brammo’s $12,000 Enertia in five West Coast stores in May. Best Buy Venture Capital invested in Brammo last year, and Brammo’s CEO wants to sell his motorcycles in thousands of Best Buy stores.

Best Buy is getting into motorcycles – think Geek Squad in mechanics’ coveralls.

The consumer electronics store chain is going to start selling the Enertia electric motorcycle made by Ashland, Ore.-based startup Brammo at five of its West Coast stores in May, CEO Craig Bramscher said Friday.

In time, Bramscher envisions the $12,000 Enertia, as well as Brammo’s upcoming lighter-duty and heavier two-seater models, being sold across Best Buy’s chain of 1,200 U.S. stores, as well as some of its 1,500 or so stores in Europe and its 270 stores in China.

Speculation that Best Buy would sell Brammo’s motorcycles began back in September when Best Buy Venture Capital participated in a $10 million investment in the Ashland, Ore.-based startup. Chrysalix Energy Ventures was another investor (see Funding Roundup: Solar and Wind Startups, Along With Tesla Motors, Seek Capital). Contributions by Bramscher himself raised that total to $12 million, he said.

The idea of selling motorcycles at an electronics store isn’t as crazy as it sounds, Bramscher said. Many Best Buy stores are built with two garage bays that are “underutilized,” he said at the Pacific Crest Clean Technology Conference in San Francisco.

Also, given features like a built-in Web server and APIs that Brammo is opening to third-party application developers, “What we’re selling is a lot closer to consumer electronics than to transportation,” he said. He envisions add-ons like on-board cameras that can download images to travel blogs.

Brammo is among a number of startups seeking to supply electric two-wheelers to the mass market – others include Vectrix and Zero Motorcycles. Others like Mission Motors are making expensive, high-performance models.

Setting up distribution channels is a key challenge for startups like these, Bramscher said. That’s why Best Buy could be a coup, he said.

After all, all the motorcycle distributors in the United States see about 7 million customer visits per year – the same number that Best Buy sees at a single store in West Hollywood, he said.

And yes, Geek Squad employees will perform what Bramscher called “level one” repairs on parts like brakes, tires and electronic components on Enertia motorcycles, he said.

For more complete repairs, for example “if you crash one,” the motorcycles will go to a small number of central distribution centers Brammo is planning, he said. (The company is seeking a second round of funding, he said, though he didn’t specify how much).

The Enertia now has a 45-mile range and a maximum speed of 53 miles per hour, using a lithium-ion-phosphate battery provided by Valence Technology that takes about three hours to charge using a standard outlet, he said.

But those range and speed limits are all right, considering that most people Brammo surveyed about their driving habits say they travel less than 25 miles per day for commuting and errands, he said. The Enertia is highway-legal, he added, and Bramm has about $3 million in pre-orders.

Brammo’s two-seater motorcycle is expected to have a range of about 100 miles and go 75 miles per hour when it’s released next year, he said

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‘Leccy Tech Back in November 2008, we reported that production of the the Pininfarina B0 – that’s B ‘zero’, not B ‘oh’ – electric car had slipped from this year to a rather vague “late 2009/early 2010”.

Sad to say, it’s starting look as though the status of the B0 has moved from ‘Coming Soon’ to ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’.
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Pininfarina’s B0: delayed again?

Pininfarina had been expected to show a production-ready running prototype – complete with Bolloré-developed drivetrain – at the Geneva Motor Show next month, but now, according to Reuters report citing a company mole, the Italian coach builder merely intends to polish up the styling concept it unveiled at the 2008 Paris Motor Show.

This suggests that the B0 is a lot further away from being a “runner” than the company had previously implied.

If the B0 release date slips any more, people are going to start talking seriously about nails and coffins as Pininfarina faces a number of other serious problems at the moment.

Firstly, it’s up to its ears in debt and its share price has tanked.

In the last 12 months, the company’s share price has dropped by more than 80 per cent, leaving it with a market cap of €24m (£21m/$30.8m) – a mere fraction of its €600m (£531m/$770m) debt. Under a deal agreed with the company’s bankers in December 2008, the Pininfarina family will sell its 50.6 per cent stake in the business in an effort to reduce the debt by €180m (£159m/$230m) and has undertaken to replay the balance by 2015.

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Secondly, the drastic drop in worldwide car sales has led to it idling its three Italian production plants on a rotating basis.

It’s also reasonable to assume that those juicy concept styling commissions are getting fewer and further between as the major car manufacturers focus on still being in business next month rather than dreaming up pie-in-the-sky visions of what the car of 2020 may – but probably won’t – look like.

Doubts had already been raised about the company’s long-term viability following the death of company CEO Andrea Pininfarina in a scooter accident near the company’s headquarters in Cambiano, Italy in August 2008. Add to that the no-show at Geneva of a model many regard as vital to the company’s future and it all starts to look just a little grim.

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While Tesla has made the biggest splash with its Roadster, a number of other companies have been busily developing their own electric-powered droptops, including Protocar. You may remember Protoscar as the builders of a wacky Porsche 911-based Shooting Brake from a few years back. In any case, the Swiss firm is back, and they’re teasing the public unveiling of their LAMPO concept car ahead of its debut at next week’s Geneva Motor Show.

The LAMPO is an all-wheel-drive electric cabriolet that uses lithium ion power to extract 268 horsepower and 440 Nm (325 pound-feet) of torque from its two electric motors. Protoscar says the LAMPO (“lightning” in Italian) has a 32 kilowatt-hour battery pack that should yield a range of 200+ kilometers (about 125 miles). However, the company seems to be most proud of its “interactive GPS-based ‘range estimator'” as well as its so-called “intelligent charging” capability. At the moment, Protoscar says the LAMPO is configured to draw its power from a photovoltaic plant in Tuscany, with the goal being to have the car as an integral part of a self-sustaining transportation and energy system. Official (if confusingly worded) press release after the jump, high-res gallery of teasers below.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced its membership in the EDISON research consortium, a Denmark-based collaborative aimed at developing an intelligent infrastructure that will make possible the large scale adoption of electric vehicles powered by sustainable energy.

The EDISON effort (Electric Vehicles in a Distributed and Integrated Market using Sustainable Energy and Open Networks) consists of IBM, Denmark’s largest energy company DONG Energy, the regional energy company of Oestkraft, Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association. Due to the environmental benefits of the electric vehicle technologies, the research will be partly funded by the Danish government.

Market introduction and investment plans in Denmark will result in upwards of 10% of the country’s vehicles being all electric or hybrid electric during the coming years. In order to minimize CO2-emissions linked to electrified transport, global attention on vehicles and infrastructure that will maximize the use of renewable energy for mobility has increased. To achieve this on a large scale, electric vehicles require smart technologies to control charging and billing and to ensure the stability of the overall energy system.

“Denmark, the host of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change conference and the most energy efficient country in the EU, further underscores its ambitions here with the Edison project announcement,” said Guido Bartels, General Manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities industry. “There is already broad consensus that both wind energy and electric vehicles have enormous potential for a sustainable energy future — bringing the two together promises to be a winning combination.”

The first step of the consortium is to develop smart technologies to be implemented on the Danish island of Bornholm, designed to function as a testbed. The island has 40,000 inhabitants and an energy infrastructure characterized by a large proportion of wind energy. Creating a testbed on the island will allow researchers to study how the energy system functions as the number of electric vehicles increases. The studies will be simulation-based and will not impact security of supply on the island.

Within the project, researchers from IBM Denmark and from IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory will develop smart technologies that synchronize the charging of the electric vehicles with the availability of wind in the grid. IBM has also contributed a hardware platform to the Technical University of Denmark that will be used for large-scale real-time simulations of the energy system and the impact of electric vehicles. When completed, the project will contribute to reaching the political objective of increasing the share of renewable energy in overall energy consumption.

“Electric vehicles are one of the technologies we can use to incorporate renewable energy into transportation,” said Danish Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard. “That is why we are making it possible for electric cars to enter the market in order to replace conventional fuel. Projects like Edison show how it’s possible to create sustainable solutions in real life.”

While various companies have announced initiatives in Denmark that will contribute to the overall adoption of an electric vehicle system, EDISON will address the entire end-to-end process to make the system possible — this includes ensuring overall grid stability and supporting the increased use of renewable energy. The smart technologies developed within EDISON may also be applied to the management of other types of decentralized batteries throughout the grid.

“Electric vehicles have enormous potential for creating a cleaner energy system as well as a cleaner transport system,” said Tim Mondorf, Nordic Business Development Executive, Energy & Environment at IBM. “We look forward to creating a working, intelligent management system first on the real-life test laboratory of the island of Bornholm, and in the longer term for Denmark as a whole.”

IBM is working with clients in nearly 50 Smart Grid engagements across emerging and mature markets. More about IBM’s vision to bring a new level of intelligence to how the world works — how every person, business, organization, government, natural system, and man-made system interacts, can be found here: http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/presskit/26094.wss

About IBM:

For more information on smart utilities at IBM visit: http://www-03.ibm.com/industries/utilities/us/index.html

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A coalition dedicated to paving the way for plug-in electric cars in communities launched on Tuesday, highlighting the technical and economic challenges to electric transportation.

Project Get Ready is spearheaded by think tank the Rocky Mountain Institute and includes a few municipalities, utilities, and nonprofits as members. It counts automakers, including General Motors, and technology companies as advisers.

The group’s goal is to accelerate plug-in electric car adoption by helping communities create multi-year plans for adoption. It will initially work with three communities–Raleigh, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; and Indianapolis, Ind.–and convene with over 20 communities later this year to share information.

Electric vehicles were a major theme at this year’s North American International Auto Show and there’s been a great deal of interest in electric cars, like the Chevy Volt, years before their release.

But communities need to actively prepare for the new technology in order to meet President Obama’s goal of getting 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by 2015–one-half of one percent of the U.S. auto fleet.

Consumers need to get accustomed to daily charging and many areas, such as cities, will need to have public charging stations. Initially, plug-in electric cars will be more expensive than gas-only cars. Also, there is some concern over how much the additional load of plug-in electric cars will bring to the power grid.

“Our hypothesis is that the challenges can best be overcome by focusing on city and community readiness,” said Laura Schewel, project manager and consultant with the Rocky Mountain Institute. The plan is to create a “menu” of techniques for addressing common barriers, such as high upfront cost, and to demonstrate that there is consumer demand, she said.

Mayor Charles Meeker of Raleigh said that plug-in electric vehicles tie into the company’s economic development plans and goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce imports of oil.

The city has one plug-in electric vehicle and intends to increase that number to 15 or 20 within a year. It hopes to build eight charging stations in the downtown area, funded through parking fees and by partnering with utilities. It is also applying for federal government loans, according to city officials.

The Indianapolis area is eager to test plug-in electric vehicles because the region’s auto companies intend to manufacture batteries and components for electric vehicles, said Paul Mitchell, a representative with the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.

“We believe this can create jobs and investments,” he said. “This is part of our stimulus strategy by taking advantage of this new paradigm.”

The region is working with two utilities to test smart-grid technology to control when and how quickly plug-in cars are charged so that they don’t stress the grid, Mitchell said. One of the challenges to adoption is developing a regulatory model that allows utilities to invest in smart-grid technology, he said.

Charging a plug-in electric vehicle takes about as much electricity as three plasma TVs and set-top boxes, according Joe Barra, director of customer energy resources at Portland General Electric. He said that since most vehicle charging will happen at night at off-peak times, the utility won’t need to substantially change its power generation.

Boris Johnson is considering the introduction of an electric car hire scheme in London as part of his attempts to make it the “electric capital of Europe”.

The London mayor today told the London assembly that the working group he has set up to look at electric vehicles was considering the autolib scheme being planned for Paris for 2010.

The plan is based on the French capital’s Velib bike hire scheme, which is already in place, and will see cars available for hire from bays around Paris.

Asked whether he would consider a similar scheme, Johnson confirmed his working group was already examining it.

The mayor – who has already set plans for a bike hire version of the scheme for London in motion – said he wanted the city to spearhead the revolution in electric cars.

He told the London assembly his environment chief was already “on the case”, and that the issue was also being considered by the electric vehicle working group.

“I think this [electric vehicle technology] is something we should be really leading on,” he said.

“I think we should be making London the electric capital of Europe, and that’s why we are going to be greatly expanding our support for charging points around London.

“We have been talking to manufacturers about the possibility about switching to, or indeed creating, electric vehicles in this city.”

Johnson said he was hoping to to persuade the transport secretary, Geoff Hoon, to give London at least a “sizeable chunk” of the £250m government money put in place to support electric initiatives.

Johnson said he wanted to see at least half the 8,000 vehicle fleet owned by the Greater London Authority replaced by electric vehicles as soon as possible.

However, he warned that considerable sums were necessary in order to invest in a technology that is “almost there … but not quite”.

“I want to see real progress towards us identifying London as the electric capital by June, but we have to be clear this is something we can’t do without government assistance and we have to do it jointly with central government, ” he said.

“It would be very sad if central government decided London wasn’t suitable or wasn’t the prime area for support.”

While backing electric cars to reduce emissions, Johnson defended his decision, announced earlier this month, to drop the third phase of London’s low emission zone, which would have penalised the highest polluting vans entering London through a £100 daily charge.

The Conservative mayor said it was “not right” to ask van drivers to spend £2,000 on making their vehicles compliant or £15,000 on replacing them with fuel efficient engines during a recession because the costs involved could tip many small businesses into closure.