Both law school alums, they recognized opportunity as demand for alternative energy grows
Take a quick day trip nearly anywhere around the country, and it’s easy to see that renewable and alternative energy is gaining momentum. The evidence is everywhere, from large wind farms dotting the landscape to clearer, bluer skies that have lost the brown and smoggy tinge of just more than a decade ago.
Wind and solar power is no longer just accessible to corporations and large municipalities. Now that alternative energy is more affordable for the individual consumer, not only is it possible that you and your next-door neighbor can go off the grid, it is more probable that you will in your lifetime.
Consider the economic impact of wind power alone: there are 75,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S. today, contributing 5.4 percent of the capacity of the power grid. This is expected to double to 10 percent by 2020, and to 20 percent by 2030, according to U.S. News and World Report. This will create 300,000 additional jobs in wind alone, not including solar.
“The renewable industry is experiencing a level of policy uncertainty that may be unprecedented even for an industry accustomed to the shifting sands of federal and state policy,” according to a 2018 outlook report by Deloitte. “It may be a challenging landscape to navigate, but the potential for rewards could be substantial.”
In sum: with renewable energy on the rise and all of its related complexities and uncertainties, it is poised for opportunities – opportunities that a father-daughter team of UMKC School of Law graduates are seizing.
“Practicing law in itself is rewarding because it’s an intellectual challenge,” says Jennifer Gardner (J.D. ’07), senior staff attorney with the clean energy program of Western Resources Advocates in Salt Lake City. “But this type of law, where I work chipping away at retiring coal plants and adding more solar and wind, this is something at the end of the day I can genuinely feel good about.”
Around the same time Gardner became interested in renewable-energy legal work, her father, Mark Gardner (J.D.’77), became involved in the field. Based in Springfield, Missouri, his business develops utility-scale solar projects and is the largest owner of solar projects in the state of Missouri.
“People are emotionally and intellectually abandoning old ways of power,” says Mark Gardner, president of Gardner Capital. “What you’re seeing is a revolution of thought.”
Jennifer Gardner’s initial legal goal was to become a prosecutor. After earning her law degree at UMKC, she worked in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. She enjoyed litigation, but was not passionate about the cases.
So, Gardner decided to work for her family’s company, Gardner Capital. Most of her work at that time involved historic preservation, converting old buildings into low-income or senior housing.
During this time, she became interested in renewable energy. She quickly discovered that in refurbishing historic buildings, there were limitations on using beneficial equipment such as solar panels.
“We’re really a lot alike. We both love using our legal brains and we also enjoy a good challenge. Being a lawyer in the field of renewable energy offers us both. Perhaps most importantly, I think at heart, we are both passionate about serving the public interest. In hindsight, I’m not surprised at all that we ended up in the same field.”
This interested her so much she decided to obtain a master of laws in natural resources and environmental law and policy from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
“It was an exciting time to be back in academia because the momentum for renewable energy was growing while I was getting this degree,” she says.
In 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that led to many clean-energy initiatives, supporting state and local energy efforts. It also extended the investment tax credit for solar energy and production tax credit for wind energy.
A job aligned after graduation, and opportunities arose leading to her current position.
A lot of Western utilities are interested in joining regional energy markets. These markets are so desirable because they are incredibly effective at integrating large amounts of renewable energy at the least cost. And utilities in the West are flush with renewable resources.
Gardner works closely with utilities, their state regulators and others in the industry to ensure that these markets are not only cost-effective vehicles for reliably integrating renewable energy, but also that the governance structures of these markets are independent and that their stakeholder processes are open and transparent. While her law degree certainly comes in handy with the work, there are some days she finds herself wishing she also had an engineering degree.
Most recently, this advocacy has included the filing of comments in investigatory dockets at the Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado regulatory commissions. It also has included presentations to state utility regulators in regional forums throughout the western U.S.
“One of the things I love about being an attorney working with renewable energy is that I get to wear lots of hats,” she says.
Gardner is still a litigator. She’s also part lobbyist, educating legislators. She’s also part policy advocate, promoting the benefits of renewable energy in a variety of regional forums.
Yet one of the most valuable skills a lawyer in renewable energy requires is negotiating.
“Being successful in the field of renewable energy requires a lot of effective advocacy to get people to play in the same sandbox,” she says. “To see that at the end of the day, we really have the same goal – we want affordable, clean and reliable energy for customers.”
Gardner is always meeting people who enjoy the practice of law, but feel their passion is lacking. They really want to make a difference and want to know how they can still practice law, but focus specifically on environmental and clean energy issues. Gardner recently helped an attorney make a transition from Goldman Sachs to another environmental nonprofit in Salt Lake City. He worked full time at Goldman Sachs and interned for her on the weekends before he made the switch.
More serendipitously, she and her father, both UMKC School of Law alums, got into renewable energy at about the same time.
“We’re really a lot alike,” Gardner says. “We both love using our legal brains and we also enjoy a good challenge. Being a lawyer in the field of renewable energy offers us both. Perhaps most importantly, I think at heart, we are both passionate about serving the public interest. In hindsight, I’m not surprised at all that we ended up in the same field.”
The Future Is Here
Mark Gardner grew up reading about renewable energy, including solar power, in the 1960s and 1970s. It seemed so out of reach, so futuristic, yet so necessary.
“The air was dirtier when I was growing up,” he says. He remembers reading about the effects of pollution on health. A runner, he’d avoid exercising in some cities because of the dirty air.
The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970, while Gardner was in high school. He watched it make great strides in air quality.
After he graduated law school, he eventually formed Gardner Capital, pursuing tax credits to develop affordable housing developments. Solar tax credits became available and his interest surged. The panels themselves initially were too expensive, but they became more affordable.
Gardner started working with cities throughout Missouri to retire coal-burning power plants. One of the surprising — and refreshing — aspects of renewable energy he discovered is that it is not a political subject.
“It’s not a liberal vs. conservative thing,” Gardner says. “Missouri is a pretty conservative state, yet cities and small towns want solar power. They want to be progressive and part of the solution. They realize you can’t continue burning fossil fuels forever.”
These transactions with cities have involved lots of legal work, typically three to four legal teams and 300 to 400 pages of legal documents.
Gardner sees the legal opportunities in renewable energy continuing — and growing.
“Look at corporate America and the hundreds of businesses that want to go green,” he says. For example, General Motors will manufacture hundreds of thousands of all-electric cars by 2025.
Also, wind and solar power is expected to more than quadruple in the next decade, bringing with it more legal work.
“Being a lawyer has been invaluable to me as a business person and someone in the renewables industry,” Gardner says. “I love it. It’s exciting. It’s fun to look at a solar field and think we’re making clean energy. Once you pay for the hardware, it’s free.”
This article is from Res Ipsa, the UMKC School of Law Alumni magazine.