Environmental Clinic Joins Proposed Agreement with Dominion on Offshore Wind
Professor Cale Jaffe ’01 and his students at the University of Virginia School of Law have gone tilting at — actually, tilting for — windmills off the coast of Virginia Beach.
The Sierra Club asked Jaffe’s Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic to joust with multiple parties before the Virginia State Corporation Commission to support and improve an enormous offshore wind farm proposed by Dominion Energy.
“The Sierra Club saw that we had a real opportunity to marry the transition to zero-carbon electricity with economic development,” Jaffe said. “Our client wanted to make sure the communities that had borne the brunt of environmental harms from traditional fossil fuel generation would now share in the economic development benefits that come with building a clean energy future.”
The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project would build 176 wind turbines, making it the largest such project in the United States, generating 9,500 gigawatt-hours of carbon-free electricity every year — enough to power roughly 660,000 homes. That’s significantly more energy than Dominion’s largest gas-fired plant produces, according to Jaffe.
With other parties focused on the project’s price tag — 1.4 times the cost of a gas plant but without any of the greenhouse gas emissions — the clinic and the Sierra Club focused their efforts on ensuring that Dominion meets state law requirements regarding diversity and equity, including commitments to hire from “historically economically disadvantaged communities.”
Throughout the semester, clinic students such as Stephen Wald ’22 served interrogatories — lists of written questions — on Dominion to identify any shortcomings and ambiguities in its economic development plan. The students then worked with an expert from the University of North Carolina to help develop written testimony that was admitted into evidence at the Virginia State Corporation Commission’s May 17 hearing.
“The clinic has been an impactful experience that’s prepared me for practice after graduation,” Wald said. “Working with our expert and the Sierra Club gave me an amazing insight into how energy law comes to life in the real world. And the fact that we might be able to make a tangible difference on such an important project is just amazing.”
In May, the Sierra Club, commission staff, Dominion and the Nansemond Indian Nation jointly requested approval of the wind farm and registered their agreement that the project’s latest iteration meets the statutory diversity and inclusion requirements, among other factors.
The commission will rule on the proposed agreement and the overall plan this summer, Jaffe said.
While diversity and inclusion targets may seem like a micro concern against the threat of fossil fuels, Jaffe argues that the two issues go hand in hand.
“Climate change threatens coastal communities and disproportionately impacts communities of color. At the same time, there have long been historic disparities in the availability of jobs in these communities, as the controlling state laws here recognize,” Jaffe said. “By clearly connecting these issues, we’re in a much better position to set a high bar for a burgeoning offshore wind industry in the United States.”
Clinic students also kept busy with several other cases this year:
- Kevin Breiner ’22 and rising third-year student Aspen Ono worked on an amicus brief, to be filed in June, on behalf of the Idaho Conservation League in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, a U.S. Supreme Court case that considers the authority of the federal government to regulate wetlands and other aquatic resources under the Clean Water Act.
- Samira Nematollahi, another rising third-year, worked with a mother and daughter whose home is just 50 feet from the site of a proposed asphalt plant.
- Jessica Rollinson ’22 worked with the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council on several energy efficiency programs to be implemented by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
- And all clinic students had the chance to work with the AMMD Pine Grove Project to preserve the historic Pine Grove School in Cumberland County, Virginia. In April, Jaffe won a $2,000 Mellon Foundation Grant to enable clinic students to collect oral histories and create legal documentation for the preservation effort. The clinic first took on the matter in January 2020.
Clinic work has exposed Jaffe and his students to a broad range of environmental justice and clean energy issues.
“I love that the Law School provides the opportunity to take on the projects that are the most interesting and engaging for students,” Jaffe said. “Because working with the students is what makes it fun — they bring so much energy and excitement to the work.”
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