A New Voice At PURA At A Pivotal Time In Energy Oversight | Connecticut Public Radio
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A New Voice At PURA At A Pivotal Time In Energy Oversight

Aug 26, 2020

One day after Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power to 800,000 customers of Eversource Energy, Gov. Ned Lamont and an entourage arrived at the utility’s suburban Hartford offices to talk about restoration efforts.

Not long into the meeting, the governor’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, was surprised, not unpleasantly, to see a young woman he had helped recruit for a state government job interrupt a senior Eversource executive.

The woman was Marissa P. Gillett, the state’s top electric utility regulator.

“There were some comments made. ‘Let’s get out there and do this collaboratively, and it’s not time for scapegoating.’ I took offense at that statement and let them know that, politely,” Gillett said. “We’re happy to support their efforts, but that implies it’s our job to get the lights on. And it’s not. It’s their job. And they are well-compensated for it.”

Gillett is the new chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. At Lamont’s urging, the three-member authority is investigating how Eversource and the state’s other utility, United Illuminating, prepared for the storm and responded to its damage.

The investigation was announced on Eversource’s lawn after Lamont and Craig Hallstrom, the regional president of electric operations, concluded a press conference — a move that signaled a new aggressiveness.

Gillett took the job last year, an outsider on a three-member panel. The other two commissioners are former lawmakers.

The scene outside Eversource was noteworthy for her presence and the absence of Jim Judge, the Eversource chairman and chief executive. Judge hosted the governor and the other state officials inside, then declined to join the governor in meeting reporters on the lawn — a decision that has brought him derision ever since.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Gail Lavielle of Wilton, told Gillett during a PURA hearing this week, “His absence was shocking, and it remains unexplained.”

Lavielle called it a violation of every rule of crisis communication.

“I also was struck by the decision of Mr. Judge not to come face the ratepayers of Connecticut alongside the chief elected official,” Gillett said. “I concur that it’s Crisis Communication 101.”

Judge is scheduled to testify Thursday before the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee.

Regarding Gillett’s exchange with a company executive on Aug. 5, an Eversource spokesman said no offense was intended.

“We have the greatest respect for Chairman Gillett and we certainly would not mean to offend her in any way,” said Mitch Gross, a spokesman. “We appreciate her leadership and look forward to participating fully in the PURA review process and welcome any recommendations and findings that will result in a better storm response and a more robust electric system for customers.”

From 2011 to 2018, Gillett worked at the Maryland Public Service Commission, an independent agency that regulates public utilities. She rose to be the senior advisor to the chairman.

Katie Dykes, who quit the PURA job now held by Gillett to become Lamont’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection, recommended her to Mounds and the governor after watching her demonstrate a command of complex energy issues at regional meetings.

“I encouraged her to approach the [Lamont] transition team,” Dykes said.

“She was basically chief of staff to the chairman of the PURA equivalent in Maryland,” said Mounds, who viewed the Maryland agency as staff-driven. “She was someone, as Katie described, very low-profile, low-key and extremely smart.”

But not so low-profile as to stay quiet at Eversource.

“I was pleased to see not only the way she handled herself in asking the questions directly to the CEO and other officials of Eversource, but her overall grasp of the moment,” Mounds said.

Gillett is 33, a lawyer who also has a degree in bioengineering. She and her husband, a school teacher, are the parents of four-year-old twins. Like the rest of the white-collar world during the COVID-19 pandemic, she often is working at home.

On Monday, she ran an all-day public hearing from her home on Zoom, taking evidence on PURA’s decision to suspend one of the twice-annual adjustments to Eversource’s rates. She frequently joined in the examination of witnesses from the utility.

The focus was narrow: An examination of certain “delivery rate components” that factored into rate adjustments that took effect on July 1, a process that requires no vote by the regulators. PURA, however, has since ordered a suspension of the rate adjustment.

Gillett was nominated by Lamont in April 2019.

“My understanding of why the governor recruited me to Connecticut was to tackle a number of challenges with the energy landscape in Connecticut, including the need to modernize the grid,” she said. “I don’t think Connecticut is unique in this. Most of New England’s infrastructure, if not the whole country, is in desperate need of modernizing.”

She spoke to the CT Mirror in an interview last week and in a follow-up after the hearing this week.

Gillett said she was assured by the state’s utilities that they had hardened their electrical grids after two storms caused massive outages in 2011 and 2012. And Eversource, according to a filing with the Securities Exchange Commission, was coming off a long stretch without prolonged outages.

“So I definitely need to take a step back and see whether the playbook’s broken, or they just didn’t deliver on the playbook that was put together after the last set of storms,” Gillett said.

The investigation of Eversource and UI comes amidst a continuing study about grid-modernization needs. The investigation will go beyond examining what Connecticut’s ratepayers got for their money after the storms nearly decade ago.

“I also think our investigation is going to have to focus on whether it’s a culture problem, because I think their communications, it left a lot to be desired on all fronts,” Gillett said. “But all the technology in the world can’t improve what is at its core a culture issue. I’m hoping not to discover it’s a culture issue when we get through the investigation.”

PURA’s culture generally has not been one that encourages its leader to address reporters outside a major utility.

“My colleagues and I made the decision that the failure of timely communication from everyone involved, we couldn’t contribute to that,” Gillett said. “I made a point to be out there trying to demonstrate that PURA is going to hold itself accountable, along with the utilities.”

Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, is among the advocates who say they are impressed so far with Gillett.

“On the rate increase, not having a consumer counsel put her in a very difficult position, where she had been judge and prosecutor,” Swan said.

There has only been an acting consumer counsel since the departure a year ago of Elin Swanson Katz. The Office of Consumer Counsel is an independent state agency with statutory responsibility to represent customers of Connecticut’s regulated utilities.

“It definitely hampers the process,” she said last week

The Democratic co-chairs of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, Rep. David Arconti of Danbury and Sen. Norm Needleman of Essex, said the informational hearing on Thursday is a bipartisan effort to gather information on Eversource rates and storm response with an eye toward developing legislation.

Arconti said Gillett has been a generous resource for a part-time legislature tackling a complex issue.

“She is very, very smart and very capable,” Needleman said. “With Marissa, it’s taking a fresh look at the whole issue of how we set rates in Connecticut and how we provide energy in Connecticut. I’m excited about the opportunity to work with her. I’m hopeful we can do things to benefit the ratepayers in Connecticut.”

Aside from helping lawmakers, Gillett said she is intent on demystifying PURA and electric regulation for the public.

“PURA and other public service commissions across the country are notorious for being black boxes, that are hard to participate in,” she said. “I am a lawyer, so I say this lovingly, but there is a lot of legal jargon and things that prevent every day business people and ratepayers from participating.”

For now, at least, there is a broader audience.