“Follow What Feels Right to You”
Career Q&A with Jay Griffin
Image by Haley Okuley/RAND
March 1, 2023
James (Jay) Griffin (cohort ’04) has made his career in the field of energy policy and regulation, but it was almost a fluke that brought him to Pardee RAND.
Now a senior fellow at Gridworks, a nonprofit organization working to decarbonize the U.S. economy, Griffin was previously a member (from 2017) and chair (from 2019 to June 2022) of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. Griffin and his two fellow commissioners decided key regulatory matters affecting the energy and telecommunications industries in Hawaii. Previously, he served as chief of policy and research with the PUC and as a faculty member at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa’s Natural Energy Institute. He has also served as a core advisory team member for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Next-Generation Distribution System Platform Initiative and on peer review panels for DOE smart grid and microgrid programs.
Griffin was interested in energy and environmental policy since long before his time at Pardee RAND, having completed joint master’s degrees in public policy and environmental management from Duke University. His 2008 Pardee RAND dissertation focused on improving cost-effectiveness and mitigating risks of renewable energy requirements.
Griffin kindly agreed to share his thoughts on his regulatory career and the role Pardee RAND played in his success.
How did you end up at Pardee RAND Graduate School?
“The Pardee RAND Graduate School was exactly what I was looking for in applied sciences and giving me the groundwork for energy policy.”
None of it was planned. A summer internship while I was studying at Duke led me to work in Hawaii with the chair of their House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection. At that time, Hawaii had passed Net Energy Metering and Renewable Portfolio Standards goals for the first time. I had a limited background in energy prior to that experience, but it sparked my interest in energy.
I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California – Santa Barbara, but the program at Bren was focused on traditional environmental economics and prepared students to go into academia. I had a different vision and was more interested in supporting the policymaking process. Through different connections, I found the Pardee RAND Graduate School. It was exactly what I was looking for in applied sciences and giving me the groundwork for energy policy.
How did you become a commissioner, and could you describe your job and challenges to Pardee RAND students?
Upon graduation, I was hired by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) where I worked on research projects related to energy issues in Hawaii. Then I became the chief of policy and research at the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in 2012, which was a new department at the time. I worked there implementing state goals.
In 2017, the Governor of Hawaii asked me to serve as a commissioner and in 2019 approached me again for the role of PUC chairman. As a commissioner, I decided key regulatory matters affecting the energy and telecommunications industries in Hawaii. As a chairman, I was also responsible for internal organization operations and capacity building. Looking back 20 years ago, I didn’t think I would be a chair at the PUC, but all these steps led me there.
The biggest challenge was making decisions on time-sensitive issues while navigating interpersonal and organizational dynamics. While energy systems and industries were transforming, the regulatory organization had internal challenges in capacity, staff, operational procedures, technology, etc. As I had already worked for the PUC, I understood the system, its dynamics, and the organizational structure. I assessed our capabilities, and I was able to make decisions in a timely manner: what can we do to improve regulatory processes to achieve our goals?
What experiences at Pardee RAND most prepared you for your job at the PUC?
“Valuable skills from the course on Decision-making Under Deep Uncertainty helped me with my job as a chair at PUC, since we do not know all the options and possible outcomes.”
My training in operations research at Pardee RAND prepared me for the role at HNEI. I worked on various projects related to clean energy in Hawaii, such as integrating renewable energy on different islands, infrastructure needs, and Department of Energy demonstration projects. Valuable skills from the course on Decision-making Under Deep Uncertainty helped me with my job as a chair at PUC, since we do not know all the options and possible outcomes.
How do you think about cost-benefit in the context of resilience and equity?
At the PUC, customer costs, reliability, and safety are critical in our valuation of projects. These are our bread and butter, but we broadened our thinking to include equity and resiliency. Multi-objective decisionmaking is how we operate now. For example, if we add costs but can also improve social justice, then we may make that tradeoff. These considerations are evolving and what’s important now may look different 10 years from now, but it’s important to continue evolving the PUC’s organization, so that it’s responsive to and receptive of the public’s concerns.
You mentioned organizational change; how has the PUC changed over the years?
The energy sector is going through multiple, parallel transformational changes. The power system is changing and in turn the organizations and regulatory procedures need to change. However, the organizational changes are a long-term process. As chair, I understood these issues and partnered with critical subject matter experts to address the issue of timeliness. The PUC had a backlog of decisions to make, and we were able to accelerate that process so our stakeholders could rely on us to come forth with decisions on the committed timeline. As a former staff member, I had the context and could move forward quickly to resolve the open issues. This way the PUC was not the impediment in the regulatory process. Then we worked to realign the organization to today’s priorities.
The PUC needed to be responsive to new demands and we changed the way we work. We brought in new staff, as the organization was at risk of people retiring and we would have had a talent gap. Lastly, we realigned our work to the current needs. The PUC used to govern single utilities, but now we have distributed systems with customers both producing and consuming energy, and we must integrate renewables, which changes the optimization of resources. All these considerations affected how we realigned the organization.
What advice would you give to students interested in a career in the energy regulatory space?
Start with your On-the-Job Training to get experience. It takes plain hard work to get in the energy space. Network with people in the industry. [Public Utilities] Commissions need help across the United States today. At commissions, you will be exposed to the good and bad of utilities and work across different industries. There isn’t a structured recruiting strategy at many commissions, so reaching out directly would put you ahead of many individuals. Working at a commission is a great training ground for any regulated industry. But at the end of the day, follow what feels right to you and change course when you see fit.