Powering Change: The Environmental and Energy Law Clinic’s Role in Minnesota’s Clean Energy Transition
Minnesota Law’s Environmental and Energy Law Clinic provides students with hands-on, real-world experience representing clients in legal cases, at the legislature, and in regulatory proceedings. The students work on a wide range of legal issues addressing climate change, clean water, clean air, and the health of Minnesota’s communities. In a partnership with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), supervising attorneys provide oversight and lead the Clinic’s work.
Minnesota’s 100% Law
One noteworthy case the Environmental and Energy Law Clinic is currently working on relates to Minnesota’s 100% Law, a bold piece of recently passed legislation. This law mandates that electric utilities in Minnesota transition away from coal and gas, which emit greenhouse gases, worsen climate change, and contribute to air pollution that disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Under this law, Minnesota utility companies are required to provide their customers with 100% carbon-free electricity by the year 2040.
However, achieving a carbon-free energy grid is not as simple as passing a law. To achieve the goals set by the 100% Law, the state of Minnesota must invest in more renewable energy and energy infrastructure, particularly in transmission lines. Transmission lines are the unsung heroes of the clean energy transition, as they are the conduits for transporting electricity from renewable sources like wind farms and solar arrays to the communities that rely on this low-cost, clean energy. Think of transmission lines as the highways of the energy world. However, just like congested highways lead to traffic jams, overcrowded transmission lines hinder the growth of clean energy projects. This is where the Environmental and Energy Law Clinic steps in.
The Environmental and Energy Law Clinic’s Role
The Environmental and Energy Law Clinic is currently advocating for three key transmission line projects in Minnesota. These transmission lines play a pivotal role in decongesting the existing energy infrastructure, making it possible to add more clean energy sources like wind and solar.
Amelia Vohs, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who serves as an adjunct faculty supervisor for the clinic, explains the unconventional nature of the legal work the clinic is involved in. “This project goes before the Public Utilities Commission, so it isn't in front of a judge. The Public Utilities Commission is a panel of 5, and they get to decide whether to grant or deny a permit for these transmission line projects. It's an interesting legal forum for the students to experience because it's not a traditional courtroom. There are a lot of technical questions the Public Utilities Commission has to decide about these transmission lines. For example, are they needed? Where should they go? And how do we locate them to make sure we're not causing any environmental degradation or community disruption? There are landowners who may be uncomfortable with a transmission line crossing their property—how do we accommodate them so these projects work for everyone?”
Vohs and her clinic student, Hanna Weil ‘24, are preparing a written document called a comment, which argues their perspective of why these transmission lines are so crucial for Minnesota’s clean energy transition and why they should be granted a permit. This document attempts to answer some of the tough questions and provides a voice of support for these projects that are key to the clean energy transition and combatting climate change.
Valuable Real-world Experience for Students
Hanna Weil, a 3L student working in the clinic, shares that the reputation of the Environmental and Energy Law Clinic is what led her to attend Minnesota Law: “I've been really passionate about renewable energy proliferation and many other issues that the MCEA works with a lot, and it's such a unique legal organization. So, it's an opportunity that wouldn't come up without the clinic. And now, I get to do things that are not very traditional for a law student to work on but are aligned with my interests. I also get to learn about a field I would normally need many more years of legal experience to work on. It's just a really great opportunity.”
Vohs expresses the clinic’s value for students, “Our clinic students are getting first-hand on-the-job training in environmental law. They also get to meet the people working in that space in Minnesota, which is actually a fairly small community, so this helps them build a network and make connections. Because of the experience gained and the connections made, this clinic experience can really be a springboard for students to start a career in this area of law.”
The Impact of Philanthropy
Donor support is instrumental in making the Environmental and Energy Law Clinic's work possible, allowing the clinic to take an active role in cases that create healthier communities in Minnesota, while addressing climate change, pollution, and environmental injustices. It also enables students like Weil to gain real-world experience, preparing them for careers in environmental law. In addition, donor support benefits nonprofit community organizations like the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) that partner with the clinic. Vohs explains, “MCEA is a nonprofit, and so for us, having the clinic students is a gift. They really help make our work possible by just helping expand our capacity to do this work.”
Thanks to the Law School’s generous supporters, The Environmental and Energy Law Clinic at Minnesota Law shows how legal education can contribute to creating a greener, more sustainable future for all.