Spokane Company Brings Smart Grid to R.I.

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which manages the state's Renewable Energy Fund (REF), recently issued a press release indicating that a $500,000 loan from the REF has been extended to the Spokane, Wash., company PCS Utilidata to open a branch of the company in Rhode Island.

At first blush, this deal seems like a perfect example of a word that makes journalists salivate and politicians tremble: misappropriation. After all, PCS Utilidata doesn’t produce or install wind turbines, solar panels or any other renewable energy sources, and it doesn't provide technical guidance or conduct studies on existing or potential renewable energy projects — the two main areas the REF has historically financed.

First, let’s clarify what PCS Utilidata actually does. According to the company’s website, its proprietary AdaptiVolt™ technology is specifically designed to: allow a utility to dispatch voltage-based demand control within seconds; reduce the load on the customer side of the meter; enhances grid reliability and optimize distribution automation.

Basically, this technology allows utilities to exercise greater control over the flow and distribution of energy. Think of it this way: The current grid control system knows where power is being generated — whether it be from a wind turbine, solar panel or gas-fired electric plant — but currently can’t assess optimally when that power is being produced. This creates an inefficiency within the grid, especially when it comes to renewable energy sources that generate power intermittently.

Simply put, the grid is currently asking wind turbines and solar PV installations to provide power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. AdaptiVolt™ technology solves that problem by sending real-time data to the grid about not only where power is being produced, but also when.

But does such technology make this Northwest company eligible for REF money? It does, according to R.I. General Law 39-2-1.2, which provides for a portion of the REF to be allocated for "demand side management programs."

ecoRI News contacted Julian Dash, director of the REF about this deal, which has the appearance of a possible misappropriation of REF funds, and he assured us that while, “We've definitely taken some heat on this one, the deal certainly fits into our eligibility guidelines as far a research and development goes. We just haven’t had the ability to do this type of thing in the past because, frankly, we’ve been overwhelmed by renewable energy production project and feasibility study applications.”

“We see this technology being implemented at all renewable energy sites in Rhode Island,”’ Dash said, “and as the technology scales up, it will increase the efficiency of the grid for the entire region, not just Rhode Island.”

This deal certainly fits the bill as far as job creation guidelines put forth by the state. PCS Utilidata would initially bring eight to 15 jobs to Rhode Island this year and create a total of 47 full-time jobs in the state by the end of 2015. The average annual wage for these jobs is expected to be about $91,000. Over this four-year job growth period, the new positions are estimated to generate about $352,000 in state income taxes.

“Utilidata is exactly the type of company we want to attract to relocate and expand in Rhode Island, bringing good, high-paying jobs to our state," Gov. Lincoln Chafee said of the deal. "I am pleased to welcome Utilidata to Rhode Island and look forward to their contributions to our growing knowledge economy.”

“Strategic co-investments in the development of new energy technologies and growing, cutting-edge businesses like Utilidata that create quality, high-paying jobs are key to building a dynamic and competitive business environment in Rhode Island,” EDC Executive Director Keith Stokes said. “The Renewable Energy Fund is a great tool to help businesses grow, reduce their energy costs and to help Rhode Island attract companies looking to also tap into our hotbed of young talent and high concentration of world-class colleges, universities and R&D institutions.”