FRAMINGHAM — Thomas Feldman didn’t always see his future waiting at the bottom of a dam.
Feldman, CEO of a small startup in Framingham called Power Development International Inc., started his career as an equity analyst for State Street Global Advisors, but grew fascinated by the energy industry.
“I realized quite quickly that there is a lot going on,” he said. “It’s a very dynamic industry, and there’s a tremendous amount of change going on.”
Feldman, 42, went to work for Concentric Energy Advisors in Marlborough as a financial and regulatory consultant, helping utilities and independent power producers navigate government regulations.
He then took a position with Free Flow Power, a hydropower development company in Boston, which created a portfolio of more than 20 projects throughout the country, most of them clustered on the three large rivers that converge in Pennsylvania.
Feldman grew convinced of water’s untapped potential.
“It’s an abundant, untapped resource,” he said. “It’s the largest contributor to our nation’s renewable portfolio mix currently, and there are massive opportunities to increase that capacity at a low cost, and in a way that’s compatible with the environment.”
Feldman and a small team will soon test that theory at the Holyoke Dam, where they will launch a six-month pilot project with Holyoke Gas & Electric to generate more power inside the dam’s existing canals.
Feldman’s company, which operates from an office at 550 Cochituate Road, received a $100,000 grant last year from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center last to design and fabricate a new underwater turbine, which will harness the water rushing through the canals to spin its blades.
While the basic concept is familiar — water has long been used to generate electricity — Feldman’s company will take a novel approach.
In a typical dam, gravity plays a key role. Water from the upper part of a river enters a powerhouse and flows down into a turbine to make it spin. The powerhouse then releases the water back to the lower section of the river.
For conventional hydropower, height is essential. But Feldman and his team propose capitalizing on the last stage in the process, harnessing the fast-moving water that shoots out of the powerhouse to generate additional power before the water rejoins the main stem of the river.
“You’re essentially making electricity two, three, four times over,” he said.
The Holyoke Dam pilot project represents a milestone for Feldman’s company, which he launched inside his home in Wayland in February 2015. Feldman, a Needham native, said he saw the latent energy in canals, estuaries and rivers around the Northeast, and sought to create a commercially-viable technology to use it.
In its early days, Power Development International designed a small turbine and tested it in India. It then landed its first outside investment in August 2016 from a group in the MetroWest area.
“That was important validation for the company, for the technology, and for our stakeholders to see that what we’re doing is providing a path toward a commercially viable and profitable and productive technology,” Feldman said.
In 2017, the company fabricated the next generation of its turbine, which Feldman said resembles an egg beater. It has four hydrofoils, similar to airplane blades, which rotate around a vertical column. PDI partnered with Massachusetts Maritime Academy to test the device in Cape Cod Canal, where the tide ebbs and floods twice a day, moving a massive amount of water through a narrow channel.
Feldman said the results have been promising. Nevertheless, PDI is working in a competitive field. Other companies have developed similar hydrokinetic technologies, though Feldman said they typically work in remote tidal areas or rivers, which aren’t close to facilities where power is needed. PDI hopes to gain an edge by piggybacking on existing hydropower infrastructure, he said, reducing the cost to transport energy.
The company patented the design of its turbine blade, which is engineered to generate more power, even in slow-moving water. The company’s progress was promising enough to land a second round of funding from its outside investor in October 2018, Feldman said.
Holyoke Gas & Electric plans to install PDI’s newest turbine in May inside the canals within the Holyoke Dam, which generates hydropower from the Connecticut River. Feldman said they will gather data for about six months, giving a broad look at its performance across different conditions and seasons.
The company is already in talks with three potential clients, according to paperwork it submitted to the Clean Energy Center last year.
“Each of those potential customers is waiting for the results of a demonstration project ... to advance these commercial discussion,” it reads.