WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Republican senators on Tuesday questioned whether the battery-maker A123 Systems Inc should continue to receive U.S. government funds in light of a deal with a Chinese firm to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the faltering company.
A123 announced last week that China’s Wanxiang Group Corp would invest $450 million to help keep A123 afloat and would have an opportunity to take a controlling stake in the U.S. green tech company.
A123 was awarded a $249 million grant by the Energy Department in 2009 under a program to expand U.S. battery manufacturing for electric and hybrid cars. The company so far has received about half of the funds.
The Chinese investment sparked an immediate outcry from Republicans that the Obama administration was allowing the transfer of government money and sensitive American technology to a country that is often seen as chief trade rival.
Senators John Thune and Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu questioning the continued investment in A123, the first official congressional inquiry into the company’s tie-up with a Chinese firm.
“Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have flowed to foreign companies through the Recovery Act, and we are concerned that the recent announcement could lead to even more taxpayer dollars going overseas,” Thune and Grassley wrote in their Tuesday letter.
They asked the Energy Department how it will handle the remainder of A123’s grant and whether the company will need those funds if the Wanxiang deal goes through.
The lawmakers also asked whether there were any assurances that U.S. government-backed intellectual property would not go to the Chinese company and whether manufacturing jobs would remain in the United States.
The Obama administration, which had hailed A123 as a model for revitalizing the U.S. manufacturing sector, said last week that none of A123’s grant would be allowed to fund any facilities abroad.
A123, which reported a second-quarter loss of $83 million, said in July that it had only about five months of cash left.
With the failure of alternative-energy companies that received government grants, including Solyndra and Abound Solar, the administration has been on the defensive in the run-up to the November elections over investments in green energy, funded largely by the stimulus act of 2009.
China has poured money into clean energy and has flooded the market with cheap solar panels that undercut U.S. solar manufacturers.
Demand for electric cars remains low due to costs and concerns about the technology. At least two U.S. battery makers, one of which also received government funds, have failed this year.
Earlier this year, Thune and Grassley also questioned the Energy Department’s decision to award a $529 million loan to Fisker Automotive Corp, which manufactured its Karma plug-in sports car in Finland.
The department said the government funds would support operations in the United States such as developing the tools and processes for manufacturing the Karma.
A123 makes the battery for the Fisker Karma, the BMW hybrid 3-Series and 5-Series cars, and General Motors Corp’s all-electric Chevy Spark, due in 2013.
Editing by John Wallace