By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Sierra Killian ’24 came to law school with an interest in environmental law and climate resilience, but not much prior exposure to the energy field.
Through Clean Energy Leaders in Law (CELL) — a student-led group now in its second year — a whole area of law and policy has opened up to her. As a 1L, she spoke with CELL’s inaugural leaders, Nadia Senter ’22 and Max Learner ’23, and learned she could work on projects related to the energy grid’s resilience to climate impacts.
“I was hooked,” says Killian, now a co-leader of CELL herself. “Since then, I have enjoyed getting insight into other aspects of the growing but still fairly niche field of clean energy law.”
CELL, one of 40 Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects (SLPS) within Berkeley Law’s Pro Bono Program, aims to help bring equity to the renewable energy sector. Through policy and legal work, student members are addressing a critical problem: Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the intensifying burdens of climate change, yet often lack access to even the most basic renewable energy alternatives, such as residential solar panels.
The group works with and is supervised by Andie Wyatt of the nonprofit GRID Alternatives and Sarah Keane ’10, a partner in Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell whose involvement with GRID stretches all the way back to her own Berkeley Law days.
Like Killian, Will Kosinski ’24 was committed to environmental law as he entered law school, but had a fairly narrow view of the career paths. Litigation was what he had in mind, maybe for the Sierra Club or the National Resources Defense Council.
Getting involved with CELL introduced him to students with interests in intellectual property, land development, land use, and the finance side of energy transactions, along with others focused on litigation.
“The community that CELL fosters is a very interdisciplinary one, and I’ve come to see just how many different types of people and types of work are involved in the energy sector,” Kosinski says. “So while I’ve been learning, at its core, what energy law can look like, I’m seeing just how many different directions this career pathway can take me — which is very exciting, because I see there’s a lot of opportunity.
“And I know that whichever path I ultimately go down, I will have a group of people who I can sort of rely on along the way.”
That community is something Keane enjoyed as a student.
“It very much shaped my career, and my whole life,” she says, but flagged a bit in the years after she graduated.
CELL’s formation was closely followed by the arrival of Professor Sharon Jacobs, whose work is heavily grounded in the energy sector, bolstering other similarly-focused faculty and researchers and giving the community new life.
“It’s really nice to see a landing place, especially for 1Ls who are interested in exploring this area,” Keane says. “It gives them a set of concrete skills, so they can see themselves working in this field.”
Earlier this year, some CELL students literally got to put their hands on a renewable energy project: After realizing he didn’t have a full understanding of how residential solar works “behind the meter,” as he calls it, Kosinski helped organize a residential solar installation for a GRID Alternatives client in Richmond.
He and fellow members Rachel Wam LL.M. ’23, Daija Chambers ’25, Cole Steinberg ’24, Connor Hughes ’25, and Julius Giesen LL.M. ’23 helped install a 3.5-kilowatt-hour solar system on the client’s home.
A lot of the work CELL and other SLPS groups do involves the intellectual side of lawyering and policy advocacy. The solar project was a great way to give CELL members a ground-level experience, Kosinski says.
“We understand the importance of what we’re doing,” he adds. “But sometimes it’s really nice to be reminded of the end result — I’m actually putting solar panels on a person’s home, helping them save energy and money.”
CELL is producing other tangible benefits for students, too, particularly when it comes to their potential career paths. Both Killian and Kosinski say their exposure to varied viewpoints and interests has widened their job horizons — and their networks.
For example, Killian says, being part of CELL prompted her to take Energy Law & Policy last fall.
“Although I don’t think I’m going to do the clean energy transactional- and installation-type work that GRID Alternatives does, I hope to use my knowledge of energy law after I graduate, potentially in a litigation setting,” she says. “Regardless of how my career turns out, I’m very grateful to have professional connections in the small world of clean energy to seek advice from and watch grow in their own careers.”
One of CELL’s strengths, Kosinski emphasizes, is its intellectual diversity, and hearing so many different perspectives has had a profound impact on his own career aspirations. He’s gravitating toward a land-use angle that considers how to effectively, equitably, and meaningfully use large swaths of undeveloped land and smaller green urban spaces as areas that can either generate or store electricity. It’s a challenge and must be done carefully to avoid generating other issues.
“In solving one problem of sustainably electrifying big cities — or a whole country — you can create many other externalities,” he says. “So I’m hoping that I can continue to build out an expertise with my career to make sure that however we develop sustainable infrastructure, it’s done in a in a way that’s mindful of the environmental impacts on the land, buildings, and communities that are going to have to host and deal with all of that sustainable infrastructure.”
As environmental justice becomes more intertwined with energy policy, Keane says, CELL may eventually be able to take on more clients.
“I’ve been super impressed with the students,” she says. “It’s been really fun to see their initiative in organizing and bringing this together and adding to what’s already a big load as a 1L or a 2L. To me, this is such an important issue bringing together social justice and climate change and having a real impact on people’s lives.”
That vibrant community has been a highlight of Killian’s law school career, especially this year, when she’s had the chance to lead a group of motivated and similarly-minded students and usher them into the world of clean energy law.
“While trudging through the many obligations and stressors of my 2L year, I look forward to our SLP meetings to see friendly faces, share goings-on in the energy world, and commiserate about law school,” she says.