DRIVING ENERGY TRANSITION
By Benjamin Jervey
Our world’s energy challenges, as any loyal G.E.T. reader already knows, are intimately intertwined with our great environmental, economic, health, and social challenges.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that energy is one of the world’s largest industries and is inextricable from the world’s other largest industries, our society as a whole is woefully energy-illiterate. Few people — even many committed climate and clean energy advocates — stop to think (or to really understand) what’s happening behind that light switch or ignition.
The Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE) at Vermont Law School is working to help change that. As IEE founder Michael Dworkin has written, “If you care about the environment, energy policy is the single most important influence, and if you care about energy, the environment is the most important constraint.”
At this critical moment in history, as low-carbon renewable technologies are contributing ever-increasing amounts to the global energy supply, and as world leaders agreed in Paris to put an end (even if eventual) to the fossil fuel era, it is more important than ever to have well-educated, deeply-informed energy experts doing the research and analysis, making the policy, advocating for the right systems, building new businesses and helping others transition to a new carbon-constrained reality.
The IEE carries forth a mission to educate graduate students on a wide spectrum of disciplines in the energy field — regulation and law, policy, smart-grid technology, clean transportation and energy markets — and to train students to have truly effective careers during this critical period of energy transition.
To achieve this mission, the IEE works on three coordinated tracks. First, the academic curriculum forms the educational backbone of an energy student’s experience at VLS. Second, the Institute’s research program produces timely publications in forums and media that inform and influence clean energy policy. Third, the Energy Clinic provides opportunities for our JD, LLM and Masters students to progressively develop the knowledge, skills, and values integral to the practice of energy law and policy, while helping our clients meet local energy needs with reliable, clean and affordable resources.
On the academic front, the IEE offers a Masters of Energy Regulation and Law (MERL) as a one-year degree that provides intensive training at the intersection of energy and law, markets, regulation and policy analysis. Law students can earn an energy certificate, or with a few more courses earn a MERL as a joint degree with their J.D. Current lawyers can refocus their practice in the energy field by earning a one-year LLM in Energy Law. The experience isn’t limited to full-time students, and in fact professionals from all over the country head to South Royalton in the summer for a series of intensive one, two- and three-week summer courses that immerse the participants in specific topics, such as: Essentials of the Electric Grid, Global Energy Justice, Renewable Energy Project Finance and Development, and End Use Energy Efficiency.
At the IEE, students can serve as research associates, working on energy policy research projects in a professional setting. The research program is modeled after actual energy consulting firms, and the student researchers tackle real-world research problems for clients. For the past three years, for instance, student research teams have worked for the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems on a Department of Energy SunShot grant. The Fraunhofer Center is working to commercialize a type of “plug-and-play” solar photovoltaic system that will eventually be marketed at popular retailers as a simple home improvement DIY-type solar solution. The IEE team examined possible regulatory barriers to the deployment of this technology, such as building and electrical codes, and procedural standards.
Finally, the Energy Clinic at Vermont Law School, run at the IEE, was launched in 2014 as the first full academic year energy clinic in the country. According to incoming IEE Director and Professor of Energy Technology and Policy Kevin Jones, “the Energy Clinic allows us to expand upon classroom theory and give students the opportunity to develop the actual legal structures for community solar, as well as implement real projects.” One example: student clinicians recently developed model group net-metering and land lease agreements for community solar arrays that are now freely available for communities to use. More recently, a group of student clinicians wrote a comprehensive report on renewable energy credits (RECs) at the request of Vermont State Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
This approach of combining academic learning with professional training has successfully delivered many IEE alumni to important, effective energy jobs, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to innovative demand response companies like Enernoc, to regional and national renewable energy development companies, to high power law firms that are working on all aspects of energy development.
Ben Jervey is the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.