Small plane crashes on Detroit's east side

U.S. planning first auto retooling loans since 2011

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — – The head of the U.S. Energy Department’s $25 billion program to make loans for fuel-saving technologies says it expects to make its first loans in more than three years.

“We are very happy with the whole relaunch,” Peter W. Davidson, executive director of the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office, said Tuesday. “We’ve been very encouraged since then about what’s going on, so we expect to make a couple announcements ... certainly this year.”

He declined to name what companies might be getting loans. But he said the program has been focusing on suppliers, and there’s been interest in making vehicles lighter in weight. “That’s one of the easiest ways to comply with CAFE standards,” he said.

Ford Motor Co. announced in January it would build its 2015 F-150 with a lightweight aluminum body, setting off a shockwave. Last week, Chrysler Group LLC CEO Sergio Marchionne said the company is considering an aluminum-bodied Jeep Wrangler.

In May, the Energy Department posted an environmental review document on its website disclosing it was planning to award a loan to Alcoa Inc. to produce aluminum for cars in Alcoa, Tenn. It said the loan would expand capacity for the auto market by 640 million pounds of aluminum per year.

Alcoa spokeswoman Lori Lecker said Tuesday the company hasn't previously disclosed the amount of the loan it was seeking. She didn't comment on the status of the company's loan application.

Created by Congress in 2007, the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program awarded $8.4 billion in loans; it has $16 billion in unused funding. It hasn’t made a new loan since March 2011 and came under scrutiny after two of five companies receiving loans halted production.

In February 2012, Vehicle Production Group LLC — a Michigan startup building wheelchair-accessible compressed natural gas vehicles that won $50 million in loans — stopped production.

A recipient of $529 million, Fisker Automotive Inc. filed for bankruptcy, resulting in a $139 million loss to taxpayers.

Some loans have performed well: $5.9 billion to Ford Motor Co.; $1.4 billion to Nissan Motor Co.; and $465 million to Tesla Motors, which repaid loans nine years early.