U.S. seeks to fund Alcoa's bet on automotive aluminum

The expansion of Alcoa's aluminum plant in Tennessee will cost $275 million and create 200 jobs when finished next year.

Photo credit: ALCOA
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed lending money to Alcoa Inc. to expand aluminum production at a Tennessee factory, setting the stage for the first loan to a supplier under a dormant $25 billion fund.

The loan would help the largest U.S. aluminum producer expand a 100-year-old factory in Alcoa, Tenn., according to an environmental permit form signed in early May by Alcoa and DOE representatives and obtained by Automotive News.

Alcoa spokeswoman Lori Lecker said the company has applied for a loan and is in the “due-diligence” phase with DOE.

Alcoa completed a $300 million expansion in January at its factory in Davenport, Iowa, to supply automakers including Ford Motor Co. The automaker plans to use hundreds of pounds of lightweight aluminum in the body of the redesigned 2015 Ford F-150 pickup truck to reduce weight and help met toughening U.S. fuel-economy requirements.

“This investment will help auto manufacturers make safe, fuel-efficient vehicles that consumers want,” Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld said in August, when the company held a groundbreaking ceremony for the plant expansion. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation attended.

Ford, Nissan Motor Corp., Tesla Motors Inc. and Fisker Automotive Inc. have previously tapped the fund for clean-vehicle manufacturing projects. The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program was created by Congress in 2007 but hasn’t approved a loan since 2011.

Experts attribute the falloff to the fact that capital is now cheaper than it was during the financial crisis. But the low-interest loans also grew less attractive to the private sector when DOE’s broader loan portfolio drew fire from Republicans who cited the high-profile bankruptcies of Fisker and the solar panel company Solyndra.

Supplies of aluminum have been tight in recent years, prompting a round of investments by Alcoa. The company projected in 2013 that its sales of aluminum sheet to automakers would more than triple to $580 million in 2015 from $160 million in 2012.

The permit form doesn’t indicate that the expanded Tennessee plant will supply aluminum to the F-150.  Alcoa and Novelis Inc. are aluminum vendors for the redesigned pickup.

Alcoa has already disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that the Tennessee expansion project will cost $275 million and create 200 permanent jobs once completed in mid-2015.

A DOE spokeswoman declined to comment on the form obtained by Automotive News, saying the agency cannot discuss the status of individual loan applications.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced in April that DOE has repurposed the program to be more attractive to auto suppliers, responding to complaints that the program was tilted toward automakers and was difficult to navigate.

“We’ve taken concrete steps to make the program easier to work with and more responsive,” he said at a meeting of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, a supplier trade group. DOE disclosed at the time that it was in active talks with an automotive supplier for a loan, but would not say which company.

As part of the announcement, the department said it still had $16 billion in low-interest financing available to support efficient-vehicle programs.

“I just want to leave you with a clear statement,” Moniz said at the April 2 event. “The DOE and the ATVM program are open for business.”

The form obtained by Automotive News was signed by Alcoa location manager Ken McMillen on May 5 and by the DOE’s Matthew McMillen on May 6.  The officials are not related, Alcoa’s Lecker said.

The form does not say how much money DOE has proposed to lend Alcoa for the Tennessee project.

From the job projections on the DOE form, it appears to be the same project that Alcoa announced last year, with 200 permanent positions created.

After the project, Alcoa’s factory would be able to produce another 640 million pounds per year of cold-rolled aluminum, of which 300 million pounds could be heat-treated.

The form says Alcoa intends for the output to be used for automotive purposes. That is a requirement of the ATVM program, which specifies that the vehicles funded by the program must be at least 25 percent more efficient than their counterparts from 2005.

Environmental groups, which pushed for the creation of the program, have signaled that they see lightweight materials like alumninum as a good use of the funds.

“Lightweight materials are a critical, cost effective strategy to meeting stronger fuel economy standards,” Roland Hwang, director of the transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail when asked about Alcoa’s application. “With the buzz around Ford’s aluminum F-150, we expect others automakers to put their lightweighting programs into high gear. “

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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