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Alternative energy companies turn to Lithium for new technologies

|Includes: F, FMC, GM, HMC, Lear Corporation (LEA), LIT, NSANF, ROC, SQM, TM, TSLA

Alte powers up hybrid makeovers as fuel costs soar

By Marti Benedetti


ohn Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Auburn Hills-based Alte LLC, couldn't have chosen a better time to ramp up his hybrid electric powertrain company.

While gasoline prices soar near $4 a gallon, Alte (short for Alternative Energy) is engineering, designing and planning to manufacture modular, range-extended electric powertrains for van and truck fleets. The powertrains will be retrofitted to the vehicles, which will double fuel economy while meeting stricter emission standards.

The company recently signed a seven-year lease on a 184,000-square-foot industrial building in Auburn Hills. Thomas said the building, formerly a Lear Corp. seating factory, suits his company well with 14,000 square feet of office space and a 170,000-square-foot factory floor.

Additionally, the company has commitments from 10 Fortune 500 company executives to join its advisory board. It hopes to announce the executives at a kickoff meeting soon.

"It's a monumental achievement for a company like ours to get Fortune 500 support," added Thomas, who formerly led the Michigan technical center for Tesla, a Silicon Valley-based electric carmaker.

Another success, Thomas said, is a recent partnership with Manheim, the world's leading provider of vehicle remarketing services, which will install Alte powertrain kits on fleet vehicles. The partnership was announced in early April, and Manheim's plan is to put a pilot facility in Southern California, Atlanta and New York City, where the demand for retrofitting is greatest. A Manheim spokesperson said the company would retrofit 2,000 to 4,000 vehicles by next summer and eventually up to 50,000 a year.

Thomas said each powertrain will provide 35 to 40 miles worth of driving on electricity from a plug-in battery. After that, an electric generator will power the van or truck for another 275 miles. A 10-gallon gas tank will fuel the generator. Down the road, the company envisions manufacturing powertrains that use diesel and compressed natural gas.

Alte got its initial funding last October from a federal visa program called employment-based fifth category (EB-5), which enabled investors from South Korea and China to invest in the company and help it grow. So far, roughly half of the company's funding has come from EB-5 investors.

One visa is granted for each $500,000 investor, so Alte has secured $5.5 million so far from EB-5 sources, Thomas said. This means 11 visas will be issued to foreign investors upon approval of their applications. The funds have kept the company operating and growing to the point where it has 36 employees and is hiring at a pace of nearly two a week.

Thomas said he had hoped to hire more people by now, but a delayed $64 million U.S. Department of Energy alternative energy loan has prevented it. He called the delay on the loan from the DOE "incredibly frustrating. We've done due diligence."

The company met with department officials in Washington last month and has secured other financing in the meantime.

The $64 million DOE loan is still pending, Thomas said.

"The DOE has increased its matching capital requirements significantly to lower risk in this batch of loan applicants, but we are undaunted and proceeding well in that capital raise," he said. "The great news is we just received underwriting approval on a major bridge loan as part of an institutional round of funding. Details will be announced when we are given permission to announce the deal from our lender."

Still, the company is interviewing and hopes to hire 48 more people by the end of this year, for a total of 84 employees.

Customers will be primarily utility, government and corporate fleets. Thomas has had interest to retrofit up to 900,000 vehicles with the Alte powertrain, and the office phone rings frequently with client prospects.Thomas expects production to start in the second quarter of 2012. He projected about $60 million in revenue next year. No revenue is expected this year.

The company will target its marketing specifically to those in the fleet industry by attending trade shows throughout the country. Thomas said Alte hit a home run when it hired Dennis Baranik, a former Ford Motor Co. executive with a "golden Rolodex," as the company's vice president of sales and marketing.

On the horizon is a $6 million DOE grant for a joint venture between his company and a group of University of Michigan professors who are working on supercapacitors that use lithium-ion technology. This is expected to be in production in two and a half years and will lower battery costs by 40 percent, Thomas said. The technology will go into Alte's battery box.

Eric Shreffler, Michigan Economic Development Corp. sector development director for advanced energy storage, said he has assisted the company in getting local and high-tech Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax incentives. He sees a promising future for the company.

"The electrification of vehicles is not a passing fad, and Alte has the ability to leverage batteries to drive powertrains," he said. "They are part of the ecosystem (in Michigan) that is growing rapidly."