POWERING DOWN.

Author:Martin, Edward

Alevo promised to reignite a storied N. C. manufacturing plant by making revolutionary storage batteries, creating an economic powerhouse. Three years later, after a bankruptcy and mass layoff, the dream faded.

Outside, the summer heat in Cabarrus County jolts Norwegian Jostein Eikeland, but in a building the size of three shopping malls, polished concrete floors and vast open spaces are cool The technology investor gestures expansively as he shows off his surroundings. The plant has been empty since it was shut down six years earlier by Philip Morris USA, which made billions of cigarettes here.

Engineers in blue hard hats position machinery to build electricity storage batteries called GridBanks. To be made by his Alevo USA Inc., each will be the size of an 18-wheeler's trailer and power 1,300 houses for an hour before recharging by conventional power plants or renewable sources such as sun and wind.

It's June 2015, and until now, Eikeland's patented technology has been super-secret. Though little noticed by the public, giant storage batteries are a hot ticket for world utilities and the core of an estimated $20 billion global market led by companies such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla Inc. and Japan's Toshiba Corp. They could dramatically alter how electricity is delivered, from impoverished villages in developing nations to brownout-prone big cities.

Pacing in a tieless white shirt, Eikeland, 46, shows off progress at his plant. He's raised more than $1 billion mostly from European investors, he says, and he's spending about $350 million refitting the cigarette company's former home 20 miles north of Charlotte. More than 2,500 people will be employed at an average annual salary of $57,000.

Among those in Eikeland's audience that day was Randy Wheeless, communications manager for Duke Energy Corp. The Charlotte-based utility had been testing competitors' batteries. "We wanted one of theirs," he says. "We wanted to put it through its paces."

Just over two years later, a few miles from the Alevo plant in August 2017, Concord Mayor Scott Padgett is at his desk when a call comes in. An Alevo executive tells him the company has declared bankruptcy and is shutting down. Its 290 employees were fired. Chief Executive Officer Eikeland had boldly predicted

Alevo would be selling 16,000 GridBank units a year by 2020, but it made and sold just one for an undisclosed price, probably less than $2 million. Just months earlier, Concord and Cabarrus County had promised Eikeland as much as $10 million in tax breaks for an expansion. The state would kick in another $2.6 million.

By the time Padgett picked up the phone, Eikeland was long gone, brushed aside by a Russian billionaire along with a Norwegian investor who'd been accused in a Dutch court of international drug smuggling.

The billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, practically cornered the global market for potash, a fertilizer, before selling controlling interest in Russia's Uralkali for $6.5 billion in 2011. He had pumped $126 million into Alevo in mid-2016, relegated Eikeland to a nonexecutive role and replaced the company's senior management team.

Ola Toftegaard Hox, a lawyer at Alevo, testified in a lawsuit protesting his ouster that Rybolovlev's takeover was "creepy," according to Norwegian court documents. A better translation is "sneaky," says Goren Skaalmo, an investigative reporter with Oslo's Dagens Naeringsliv business newspaper.

"He purchased shares at different times via different entities not openly connected to him," Skaalmo says. Efforts to contact Eikeland and Rybolovlev were unsuccessful. Likewise, attempts to reach current executives of Alevo also failed. Incorporation records in Florida show Eikeland chartered a company there in December 2016, about six months after Rybolovlev took over Alevo. Eikeland is now listed as chairman of EWL Technologies Inc. in Boca Raton. Another former Alevo executive, Scott Schotter, is secretary.

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