2014 EIA Energy Conference

On Monday and Tuesday of this past week I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual conference in DC. For those of you who haven’t spent countless hours swimming in EIA databases for an energy class, what you need to know is that the EIA is the prime source of all energy related information in the U.S. and abroad: crude oil production, trends in renewable energy growth, annual vehicle miles traveled, etc. It has a reputation for independent and thorough analysis that does not attempt to influence policy. One of its major downsides is that data is released with a lag of a few years; meaning that in 2014 we’ll be able to access statistics from 2012. Thus, it provides a retrospective picture of how we consume energy.

While the talks were generally informative, I found that truly new, exciting information – which is the primary goal of a conference – was lacking. Most of the knowledge could have been gathered from the EIA’s website for anyone who knew where to click. Not helping were the lackluster, uninspiring PowerPoint presentations that left many an attendee nodding off or poking around their iPhones for less scholastic entertainment.

One of the sessions I was particularly looking forward to was “Emerging Trends in U.S. Vehicle Travel Demand.” Never mind that the talk was monotonic and mostly read from slides that didn’t even attempt to veer from the default colors and layout of Microsoft Office PowerPoint. If my amateur self was unimpressed with the versatility and depth of the information on offer, I can’t imagine what seasoned industry experts must have experienced. We know millenials are driving less for a variety of reasons: changing values, less disposable income, putting off getting married and starting families, and more favorable attitudes towards density. Yet what does this mean for the future of transportation? Why didn’t the panelists discuss diverting transportation funds from our highway infrastructure to public transportation? Greenhouse gas emissions were barely mentioned, which is stunning in a conversation about vehicles.

In “The Future of Biofuels,” William Woebkenberg of Mercedes Benz only talked about two fuels  — biodiesel and bioethanol – and focused exclusively on problems in their compatibility with current vehicle engines, such as corrosion and oxidation.. This is not the future of biofuels, it is the present. Vehicles engines are supposed to be evolving as well, not standing still and waiting for biofuels identical to gasoline to come their way. We shouldn’t expect to just be able to pour 2050 fuels into 2001 Volkswagens, and the talk failed to spark conversation about what car manufacturers could be doing on their end. I was disappointed in how limited and shortsighted of a discussion Woebkenberg provided, and especially dejected by his simplistic stab at the EPA – “the three scariest letters for him.” Following him, Monsanto’s Beth Calabotta vaguely mentioned bioengineered corn stalks and their potential for biofuels, and dropped the word algae at the end of her talk, but mostly delivered a Monsanto PR campaign highlighting their efforts to increase protein-rich food crop production to feed the world.

The “Renewable Energy: From Alternative to Conventional, Does Policy Still Matter?” session was ostensibly intended to discuss the role of policy in the future of renewables, but EIA projections assume no future policies to support renewables once current policies such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard and Production Tax Credit expire. This is an unrealistic depiction of the future landscape because some kind of renewables policy will surely be present. Not exploring potential future policy options and giving advice as to the most effective programs results in the sacrifice of usefulness for the sake of objectivity, and discourages investment in renewables.

Edward Randolph of the California Public Utilities Commission also spoke at the “Renewable Energy” session and was one of the few panelists who contributed interesting analysis and forward thinking suggestions. I learned that today, California has a similar percentage of total electricity load from renewables as Germany, 19% and 21% respectively, but California prices are lower. In order to further grow California’s total renewable production, Randolph stressed the importance of targeting energy efficiency, demand response, electricity storage, electric vehicles, retail ratemaking, retiring less flexible plants, and managing energy inter-regionally.

The EIA’s capacities and potential are huge, but in its desire to remain objective it turns myopic, stunting creative thinking to solve the problems of the future. This isn’t just useless. It’s harmful. The standard is set so low that the various actors in the energy industry fail to think about exploiting future possibilities and making profits while also decreasing our energy use. A result of this nearsightedness is a reinforcement of a conservative environment that seeks to maintain the status quo rather than thinking about nimble and efficient ways to change the energy landscape. Change will never happen if we’re committed to stagnation. The conference wrapped up with complaints about the Obama administrations refusal to pass Keystone XL, and I left the conference wondering if every expert present at the conference shared these views, or if there were others as disappointed as I was.