Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: January 13, 2020 5 to Watch in 2020

Gillett leads CT’s massive grid-modernization effort

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon Marissa Gillett, chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA).
5 to Watch in 2020 related articles
More Information

If there’s a contest for who has the most significant and complex workload with the highest possible stakes in 2020, Marissa Gillett might win it.

The Connecticut newcomer is chairman of the soon-to-be five member Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, where she’s begun to oversee a massive effort to determine how the state and its regulated utilities can usher the electric grid into the 21st century in order to combat climate change and spur growth of a green economy.

For Gillett and her fellow PURA commissioners, that will mean deciding on, and then directing utilities to work on, the best ways to prepare the grid for a potential major ramp up of electric-vehicles adoption, as well as an envisioned future where wind, solar and other renewable sources become a dominant part of the state’s power-generation mix, which relies heavily on natural gas.

Businesses should pay attention because any transformation could impact Connecticut’s electricity costs, which are already among the highest in the country.

During an interview at PURA’s New Britain office, Gillett said affordability is top of mind as the grid-modernization process gets underway, but ratepayers should also understand that if society fails to decarbonize, they will ultimately pay for it in other, potentially more costly ways.

A year from now, she said PURA should be close to releasing its first set of grid-modernization proposals for lawmakers to consider.

“The grid is the backbone of the economy,” Gillett said. “We don’t currently have the infrastructure in this state that would allow those advances to take place, especially in a cost-effective, intelligent way.”

In the coming year, she and her fellow PURA commissioners will also review and rule on an 804-megawatt offshore wind contract between Vineyard Wind and utilities Eversource and Avangrid, which would be Connecticut’s largest-ever renewable energy deal.

She may also find herself quarterbacking PURA’s response to a potential bankruptcy by Frontier Communications, the state’s largest provider of landline telephone service as well as a major owner of utility poles. Bloomberg reported in November that Frontier could file for bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2020 as it deals with a declining customer base and massive debt.

Gillett, who has a bioengineering degree from Clemson University and a law degree from the University of Baltimore, spent eight years as an advisor to Maryland’s utilities regulator. There, she focused on a similar grid-modernization effort and helped design Maryland’s offshore wind program, which in 2017 approved the first large-scale offshore wind projects in the country.

She then did a brief stint at a national energy storage association in Washington, D.C.

Gillett threw her name in the hat for the PURA job when she heard former chairman Katie Dykes would be leaving to become commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The two had previously worked together on a multistate pollution-reduction program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but we really like Connecticut,” Gillett said of relocating to West Hartford with her high-school-biology-teacher husband, and their two young twins.

In addition to PURA’s grid-modernization work, the quasi-judicial agency’s staff of 70 also handles myriad other matters involving electric, natural gas, water and telecom providers.

Gillett admits she is a bit anxious about PURA’s 2020 workload. She’s also aware that her newcomer status could affect how those in PURA’s orbit view her.

“I’m sure people think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to proving them wrong.”

Getting utility buy-in

Modernizing the electric grid, which is the interconnected system of wires and infrastructure used to distribute electricity to homes and businesses, is the single biggest initiative Gillett said she is overseeing.

PURA has broken down the effort into six specific topics, including energy affordability, electric vehicles, “smart meters,” energy storage, interconnection and innovative technologies. Five more topics will be added in 2020.

One challenge in envisioning big, significant changes to the grid will inevitably be the utility companies, which have said they support grid modernization, but have urged caution in moving too quickly or taking too much risk, which could be costly to ratepayers.

For example, Connecticut’s largest utility, Eversource, doesn’t offer smart meters to its Connecticut customers.

Gillett said the meters are a “well-tested, viable technology” that she supports because they can help change consumer behavior, give better insights into energy-efficiency programs, enable time-of-use rates and real-time pricing, and help utilities better coordinate the grid.

Though Gillett said it’s understandable that utilities are risk averse, part of PURA’s role is to prod those companies along. When it comes to deploying new grid technologies, she aims to steer the discussion away from the types of small-scale pilot projects PURA has agreed to in the past.

“We’re kind of at a breaking point in terms of needing to deploy real solutions,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that we have a climate crisis and a resilience issue.”

As PURA gets to work on what could be a multi-year process, full of technical and confusing language and concepts, Gillett is trying to ensure that the public can understand and play more of an active role.

With that in mind, she’s given environmental groups, clean energy promoters, low-income advocates and others the chance to make presentations on grid-modernization topics to PURA commissioners.

Those so-called Solutions Days are a refreshing change in approach, said Amy McLean Salls, Connecticut director at the nonprofit Acadia Center, which advocates for clean energy growth.

“It’s more like a conversation, a roundtable,” McLean Salls said. “This is a way for the authority to hear things they wouldn’t hear otherwise.”

Sign up for Enews

Related Content


Order a PDF