Law students see energy law in action with field trip to power substation

Apr 15, 2021 | Students

By Shelby Jarman

As a top 10 environmental law school, the S.J. Quinney College of Law has several classes that focus on natural resources and the environment. One class that ties into that program is Energy Law, taught by three adjunct professors who bring their professional experience into the classroom. The class is also enriched by a variety of guest speakers who have shared their expertise with law students via Zoom.

Professor Matthew Moscon, a partner and energy litigator at Stoel Rives and one of the professors of the Energy Law class, worked with his fellow instructors to add one more aspect to the class to really round out the experience: a field trip to a power substation to see energy law in action.

“As a full-time practitioner, it is important for me that our students learn not only what ‘the law is’ on emerging energy topics, but also learn the actual impacts of those policies on local residents, businesses, our environment, and the economy,” Professor Moscon said. “I want them to think through how they would deploy this knowledge to help clients—be they large corporations, non-profit advocacy groups, or individuals.”

Professor Moscon and his students visited the McClelland Substation, the Rocky Mountain Power substation powering the neighborhoods around the University. This was made possible by contacts of Professors Jeff Richards and Dick Garlish with the power company.  The instructors and students took an indoor and outdoor tour of the facilities and discussed, among other things, the path that power takes from the substation to our homes.

“I’m a visual learner, and this field trip enabled me to make connections between the complex terms, concepts, and processes we learn about in our casebooks and what actually happens on the ground,” said 2L Madeleine Whittier, a student in the Energy Law class.

One facet that makes energy law so complex is the fact that it happens on many different levels. The McClelland substation receives energy from high-voltage transmission lines and steps it down to lower, distribution level energy that powers the homes and businesses near the University of Utah.  Transmission involves interstate and federal-level energy policy.  Distribution to local homes and businesses involves state energy policy.  Other current topics in the energy market, such as roof-top solar generation or distributed generation serving private communities, also implicate how energy is delivered at the local level.

“There are few, if any, topics that have a bigger impact on your daily life than energy, but few of us stop to think about where that energy comes from, how you would survive without it, and what impacts are made by your choice to consume it,” Professor Moscon said. “I want our students to understand the costs there are to the environment, the economy, and to our fellow citizens by the choices they make on a daily basis.”

Whittier is on the environmental and natural resource law track and primarily took the Energy Law class because it fulfills the curriculum requirements. She is leaving the class with a much better understanding of the realities and intricacies of practicing in the field of environmental law.

“Energy law is intimately tied to environmental issues and climate change concerns,” she said. “I think understanding the history of energy law and the current regulatory structure is an important part of being a creative problem solver. As lawyers, if we want to see these systems change and evolve, we need to understand them!”

And that, Professor Moscon says, is the reason the instructors incorporated a field trip into the Energy Law class.

“Studying the law is always useful, but learning to apply those legal principles to solve actual problems is the purpose behind the practice of law,” he said.