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Nikola announces $2 million DOE grant after founder’s indictment

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A wave of government grants and loans is potentially about to flood the clean tech space

Image: Nikola

This week hydrogen trucking startup Nikola announced that it won a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy. While the DoE announced the grants in July, Nikola is promoting the news just two weeks after founder and former chairman Trevor Milton was indicted for allegedly committing fraud.

The grant is meant to help Nikola research autonomous refueling technologies for hydrogen refilling stations. It was awarded by the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy transportation office as part of its Hydrogen and Fuel Cells R&D program, which is focused on proving the reliability and sustainability of using hydrogen as a zero-emissions power source.

The DOE grant comes at a time when the department is getting ready to ramp up funding activity to help advance the United States’ development of clean energy technologies — a priority under President Biden. One of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s first moves after she was appointed was to revive the department’s loan program, which has been largely dormant since the early Obama administration. That program made a number of bets on clean energy startups in the aftermath of the recession that blew up in the administration’s face, like solar tech company Solyndra (which went bankrupt after China dramatically drove down the cost of solar panels) and Fisker Automotive (which went bankrupt after problems with its battery supplier).

The DOE loan program also helped some companies survive the tumultuous years of the early clean tech boom, like Tesla. “If you want to have the leading electric vehicle manufacturer in the world... you’ll have to make multiple bets. And some of those bets will lead to losses,” new loan program head Jigar Shah said when he was tapped earlier this year. While it’s separate from the grant programs, the DOE loan program is known to be in discussions with at least one other troubled EV startup: Lordstown Motors, which has said for months now that it’s in the “due diligence” phase of a request from about $200 million.

Nikola has spent much of the last year trying to rebound from Milton’s ousting, which came after he was accused of lying about the progress the startup had made by the time it went public. Short-selling research firm Hindenburg Research published a report last September that tried to make the case that Nikola was an “intricate fraud,” including the now famous claim that the startup had staged a video showing one of its trucks operating by secretly rolling it down a hill. The report torpedoed General Motors’ decision to take an 11 percent stake in Nikola, and Milton resigned soon after.

Nikola eventually performed an internal investigation that confirmed Milton had lied, a lot, and the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened investigations into his claims. Last month, they filed parallel criminal and civil charges against Milton as a result.

Nikola is still losing around $100 million per quarter, and it had around $630 million in the bank at the end of the second quarter of this year.

“Autonomous fueling is part of the industry’s effort to ensure fast, efficient, and safe fueling of a large onboard storage system to be less than 20 minutes for heavy-duty vehicles,” the company said in a statement. “This project is expected to address this goal by working to develop an autonomous fueling system that can rapidly refuel heavy-duty fuel-cell electric trucks, while minimizing labor and challenges relating to ergonomics and maintenance of equipment, as compared to an equivalent manual fueling process.”

Correction (August 13th, 3:xxPM ET): An earlier version of this story said the grant was announced after Milton’s indictment two weeks ago. It was first announced on July 7th by the Department of Energy. The Verge regrets the error.