A123 Systems Goes Up in Smoke But Lithium Batteries Rise from Ashes

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File under Another One Bites the Dust: the innovative lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems has just declared bankruptcy. Since the company received a hefty loan from the Department of Energy under the Obama Administration, that makes it a legit political football, especially on the eve of the second presidential debates. Indeed, the predictable kick was swift in coming, but as the ball goes flying down the field, the important thing to watch for is where it lands, and who makes the catch.

lithium ion company A123 Sytems goes bankrupt

Romney and Obama Trade Barbs over A123 Bankruptcy

As always, our friends over at The Hill have done a great job of keeping up with the political action. Under the header “Romney pounces,” The Hill’s Ben Gemen quotes presidential Mitt Romney claiming that the A123 Systems bankruptcy represents a “disastrous strategy of gambling away billions of taxpayer dollars.” Gemen is careful to note, though, that the 2009 loan was supported by Republicans in Congress as well as Democrats.

Gemen followed up a few hours later with another piece under “Obama parries,” in which an Obama campaign spokesperson points out that all together, the President’s support for federally funded clean energy initiatives including the wind energy tax credit, solar power, and advanced manufacturing has added up to thousands of new jobs while leading to savings for consumers.

That’s backed up by the Department of Energy, which asserts that fueling costs for electric vehicles are currently the equivalent of $1.00 per gallon. That marker is expected to drop even farther as new technologies come on line.


So Long A123 Systems, Hello New Batteries

From its inception under the Bush Administration, the DOE loan program was structured to absorb a reasonable element of risk, and as it turns out, U.S. taxpayers might not be so much on the hook for the A123 bankruptcy. The four-star global technology company Johnson Controls has already agreed to keep A123’s automotive battery operations humming along, and A123 is optimistic that its other assets will be picked up, too.

Returning to that football metaphor, what the A123 bankruptcy demonstrates is that the U.S. clean tech sector is growing and maturing to the point where some companies have the resources to catch others when they stumble. In other words, a small measure of failure is proving the success of a much broader policy, part of which involves building up the U.S. battery manufacturing sector.

As to where that ball is going to fall, keep an eye on the price of lithium, which is a key factor in the overall price of electric vehicles. Currently, the domestic battery industry relies heavily on imported lithium, but new lithium extraction technologies and new lithium plants in the U.S. could turn that situation around and bring prices down.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3140 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

8 thoughts on “A123 Systems Goes Up in Smoke But Lithium Batteries Rise from Ashes

  • Opponents of clean energy will undoubtedly be out in force, using this story as just another example of why clean tech is a bad investment and will never work.

    Here is why they’re wrong. Simply put, the battery industry is growing by leaps and bounds.

    · The advanced battery market is expanding dramatically – from $5 billion in 2010 to nearly $50 billion in 2020, an average annual growth rate of roughly 2 percent.

    · The private sector is heavily invested in advanced batteries – Department of Energy (DOE) grants, like the $6 million the Bush administration gave to A123 in 2007, were matched dollar for dollar (or more) by private investments in A123.

    · We built a brand new battery market in America – Prior to the DOE loan program, all advanced batteries were manufactured overseas. Today, more than 30 DOE-supported plants are already in operation, employing thousands of American workers.

    · The investments have paid off and battery costs are dropping – Prior to the DOE loan program. a battery with a 100 mile range cost $33,000. Because of technology improvements and the high volume manufacturing capability we have today, the estimated battery cost is down to about $17,000 and is expected to drop to $10,000 by 2015 (Source: Department of Energy, http://1.usa.gov/RBo2OV)

    Yes, it’s a tough and fiercely competitive economy and, yes, a small number of clean energy companies have experienced difficulty, but those company bankruptcies hardly indicative of the overall clean energy sector. In fact, some fossil fuel businesses have also failed in recent months, see: ATP Oil & Gas Corp., Patriot Coal, etc. While business failures are unfortunate, this is how the free market works. Businesses occasionally fail.

    But A123 isn’t dead and its work will continue on under Johnson Controls, a strong, all-American business. Johnson Controls is the largest supplier of lead-acid batteries for cars and has commented that A123’s assets “are a good complement to [our] existing portfolio and will further advance Johnson Controls’ position as a market leader in the industry.” Mergers and consolidation are signs of a maturing industry.

    A123’s bankruptcy will no doubt be leveraged for political reasons, but that doesn’t change the facts: the advanced battery-manufacturing program at DOE has been a success. Advanced battery technology is here to stay, and it will continue to improve as its price continues to drop.

    Get more energy facts at http://www.energyfactcheck.org and follow us on Twitter at @twitter-566603099:disqus

  • These regularly occuring bankruptcies are almost always a failed plan, which was not required as a condition of the loan.
    It’s the same thing over and over again. Totally unacceptable, as it’s breaking the bank….the bank of taxpayer’s money, which we could use for education, healthcare, cancer research…careing for our diabled veterans….what have you.
    Our leadership, if you can call it that, is totally inept, Obama is inept, and as long as this continues, we go deeper and deeper into the hole financially.
    As far as I’m concerened, and of course, judgeing by the dismal results…these issues are handled no better than a bunch of dysfunctional and disgruntled larents at a PTA meeting.
    Companies should be required to submit their business and reasearch plans to a scientifically managed board, and judged on their merits…..period

    • BS, Stan. The success rate of the DOE loan guarantee program is in excess of 90%.

      Romney’s success rate at Bain was less than 50%.

  • It is so simple. Obama put $2.5 Billion (and the grantees put in $2.5 Billion!) into Li Ion battery factories where there was a demand for maybe $500 million worth of factories someday in the future. $5 Billion in factories! That is a 10X over-capacity for a future market, we hope…. That means that 90 % of that expansion will die. Green tech and vehicles and everything else need to have a viable economic reason to succeed or they will not. We can not subsidize them to success. The companies who took the grants could not say “NO”. To say no puts you out of the game before you start. So everyone gambles and throws in the chip to play. Unfortunately many of the chips belonged to naive shareholders of these pretend battery companies. There will only be 2-3 remaining soon…

    • I suppose the option would be to have a president who attempts to do nothing to help America gain a foothold in emerging technologies and then we could slip down to being a second-rate country.

      I suspect you don’t understand how important government subsidies and support have been for making our country successful.

      Cutting taxes on the rich. Shipping jobs overseas. Cleaning out employee retirement accounts and letting companies go bankrupt. Putting your earnings in oversea banks so that you can avoid paying taxes in the US. A guy who has a history of doing that sort of stuff is a route to ruin for what’s left of America’s middle class.

      • Bob,
        I suspect you don’t understand how a free-market economy works. Name a business proposition that started from a government subsidy that lasted longer than the subsidy. Don’t propose the Internet or the Space program because they would have gone nowhere if free market people hadn’t taken ridiculously inefficient and poorly managed efforts and turned them into something useful and efficient because of the profit motive. Aren’t you wondering why production of the Volt was stopped? Aren’t you curious why the Nissan Leaf production was stopped. No Demand!
        Your diatribe on political economics shows that you are a product of the Lemming society we live in right now. You are not knowledgeable on economics. Class warfare is a sad Marxist game that comes up every four years but is ignored until then because the current administration has hurt the Middle Class more than any of the last three. No one seems to mention that…
        You are wrong, but you have a right to be wrong. Good Luck!

        • “Name a business proposition that started from a government subsidy that lasted longer than the subsidy. ”

          Railroads. Specifically the transcontinental railroad.

          ” Don’t propose the Internet or the Space program because they would have gone nowhere if free market people hadn’t taken ridiculously inefficient and poorly managed efforts and turned them into something useful and efficient because of the profit motive.”

          Free market people would not have been able to take the internet and space program and make money off them had not the government first done the heavy lifting.

          “Aren’t you wondering why production of the Volt was stopped? Aren’t you curious why the Nissan Leaf production was stopped. No Demand!”

          Production was paused because production got ahead of demand for a while. That is a frequent occurrence in vehicle manufacturing. Both the Volt and Leaf are currently being manufactured and sales are growing.

          Your lack of facts, or more accurately your supply of anti-facts, suggests to me that you get your pseudo-news from Fox. Don’t
          let Rupert Murdoch turn you into a dummy.

        • The Volt is a highly successful car. The Leaf is picking up steam. Both are doing much better at this age of their life than the Prius was, and the Prius is now the #3 car in the world in auto sales.

          A “free market” is an ideological dream that does not exist in the real world — even if we had anarchy. You learn that in Econ 101 (or you should). The govt actually needs to step in to make the market act more free by adjusting for externalities and lack of full and correct information amongst the public.

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