Clean-energy startup Nikola Corp. had a tough year even by 2020 standards. The once high- flying alternative-fuel vehicle maker started life as a public company with a short seller levying fraud allegations against founder Trevor Milton, who denied the claims but then resigned after the Securities and Exchange Commission took interest. That collapsed a deal to build trucks with General Motors Co. and resulted in the indefinite postponement of Nikola’s much-ballyhooed Badger electric pickup truck.
Believe it or not, the truly hard stuff is still ahead: building a real business selling large fuel cell trucks that turn hydrogen into electricity. Milton may be gone, but the SEC’s attention has had a chilling effect on Nikola’s efforts to forge partnerships that would help develop its business faster. GM in late November said it wouldn’t take a $2 billion equity stake and open its vast purchasing and manufacturing resources to speed the upstart’s trucks to market, deciding instead to just sell Nikola its hydrogen fuel cell system. The government probe also played a role in scaring offBP Plc, which would have helped the startup build a network of hydrogen filling stations.
That network is a big piece in Nikola’s future ambitions. The company plans to boost its profits selling hydrogen to the fleet customers who’d also buy its hydrogen-powered semis. Without the cash and resources of BP or another major energy company—and with its own share price falling more than 75% off its high last June—Nikola faces the daunting task of building that network on its own. The company declined to comment on the status of its relationship with BP, or of the SEC investigation’s impact on its ability to attract partners.
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