Northeast Utilities invests $10 million in Massachusetts fuel-cell maker

By DAVID HAMMER

BERLIN, Conn. Sept. 27, 2000 (Waterbury Republican-American)— Northeast Utilities announced Tuesday that it is investing $10 million in a company that manufactures fuel cells, which offer consumers cleaner, cheaper energy than traditional power plants.

It was the second time in four days that a Connecticut company was involved in a groundbreaking investment by a utility in the production of a new energy technology that until now had been considered a competitor.

In an apparent admission that fuel cells fill a niche traditional utilities can’t bridge on their own, NU will take a 5-percent ownership share in privately owned Acumentrics Corp. of Westwood, Mass.

“We know that these new power sources are a fast-growing segment of the market,” said Frank Poirot, NU spokesman. “In talking to our institutional customers, we’re hearing that they need a premium power source to stay up and running, and Acumentrics develops them to address their uninterruptible power needs.”

Last week, Danbury-based FuelCell Energy Inc.—a publicly traded company that plans to be the first to offer industrial sized, on-site fuel cell power plants on the open market next year—gave a 1-percent share to Pennsylvania Power & Light Corp. as a part of its distribution agreement.

PPL’s subsidiary, PPL EnergyPlus will buy 1.25 megawatts of fuel cell plants over the next two months. FuelCell energy manufactures its fuel cells in Torrington.

About a year away from being commercially viable, fuel cells allow traditional fuels to react chemically with air and hydrogen, without burning, to create electricity. Ranging from 3 to 6 feet tall, they can be controlled remotely by computer, run quietly, inexpensively and without emitting heavy pollutants.

Poirot said NU chose Acumentrics because fuel cells are just a piece of the alternative generation market and the Massachusetts firm has a diverse product line. It makes solid oxide fuel cells, high-speed flywheel-based motor-generator hybrids and surge protection systems.

Flywheels and solar power stations act as backup generators controlled by companies that are also hooked up the electric power grid.

Michael G. Morris, NU chairman, president and CEO, said the investment provides NU “entry into the fast-growing premium power and distributed generation market.” These alternative modes of production are gaining popularity for two reasons:

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FuelCell Energy spokesman Bill Baker said that he welcomed NU’s investment in fuel cell technology, but admitted he had never heard of Acumentrics and was surprised to see NU invest in such a small player. FuelCell Energy makes hydrocarbon fuel cells, not solid oxide units. He said Siemens-Westinghouse, based in Pittsburgh, is the North American leader in producing solid oxide fuel cells.

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© 2000, Waterbury Republican-American, Conn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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