Why Was the Government's Top Alternative Energy Conference Canceled?

Conference-goers blame it on GSA spending shenanigans, not Congressional energy politics. The event will resume next year.

Senior army officials talk after an energy security panel at the 2010 GovEnergy conference held at the Dallas Convention Center. Credit: Stephen Baack, U.S. Army

WASHINGTON—A popular and longstanding trade show that connects alternative energy contractors with federal projects is evidently a victim of government employees' past spending shenanigans, not election-year politics and ideological disputes over clean energy spending.

"House Republicans have politicized this issue to the point where [people] are understandably asking these questions ... That's really too bad. Nowhere else in the world is clean energy controversial," said Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a Washington-based, centrist think thank. "But sometimes a canceled conference is just a canceled conference."

Dan Tangherlini, acting chief of the General Services Administration, called off GovEnergy barely a month before the four-day gathering was scheduled to kick off Aug. 19 in St. Louis.

"After rigorous review ... GSA has found that the conference structure does not meet the standards that GSA has put in place for conferences and contracts," the agency said in a statement circulated to reporters last week. "There were many unanswered questions about how the conference was structured and there was not sufficient time to address the problems raised."

Tangherlini—who previously had high-ranking positions with the District of Columbia government and with the U.S. Treasury Department—was tapped to lead the GSA in April after the agency's inspector general issued a scathing report that forced Administrator Martha Johnson to resign. The GSA is tasked with managing federal real estate and overseeing a majority of government purchasing.

The April 2012 report focused on the agency's October 2010 Western Regions Conference for about 300 GSA employees at a fancy hotel in Henderson, Nev., south of the Las Vegas strip. News that the four-day event cost $823,000 and included a clown, a mind reader, after-hours parties and gourmet meals sent the austerity-obsessed capital into a frenzy that was heightened by election-year politics.

The 15-year-old GovEnergy, the largest conference of its kind in the country, is sponsored by six other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency. It offers workshops and training sessions for federal employees tasked with slashing energy use in government buildings, and gives the private sector a chance to showcase clean technologies and services.

While its cancellation this year has disappointed exhibitors in the cleantech sector, many of them said they understand why the GSA's new leadership is scrutinizing every dime the agency spends.

Walker Frost, a spokesman for the global solar company Suntech, said his business has attended GovEnergy since 2007 and had planned to attend this year.

"Regardless [of the cancellation], the U.S. government has made a clear commitment to the use and development of renewable energy technologies, and we will continue to support those efforts in years to come," Frost said. "That commitment was one of the reasons we decided to build a solar panel manufacturing facility in Arizona in 2010."

The Department of Defense (DOD), which has set a goal of getting 25 percent of its energy from renewables—and which recently has come under GOP attack for pursuing biofuels—declined to comment.

The independent DOD energy blog reported last week that the DOD "still felt that GovEnergy was the preeminent vehicle to bring government and industry together and promote an atmosphere of trust through openness" and that the "move by GSA will erode trust."

GSA: GovEnergy to Resume Next Year

Tangherlini and his new management team have spent the last several months setting new standards for conferences and reviewing GSA's daily operations. He has initiated a hiring freeze, sliced or scaled back bonuses to most executives, begun lopping travel budgets throughout the government and canceled other planned conferences.

GSA spokespeople did not answer inquiries this week from InsideClimate News about how many other conferences have been canceled or when they were scheduled to begin. Nor did the agency answer questions about the new standards being set for conferences.

At an April 16 hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Tangherlini told lawmakers: "To date, I have cancelled 35 conferences, saving taxpayers $995,686." The GSA did, however, go on to host its GSA Training and Expo in May in San Antonio and FedFleet, a series of motor vehicle and aviation workshops, in June in Louisville, Kentucky.

After canceling GovEnergy, the GSA asked its Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to review contracts that were awarded for the event. Sarah Breen, a spokeswoman for the OIG, declined to comment on why that request was made.

Breen did say that generally people contact the office if they suspect the GSA has misused government funds, committed a crime or broken laws. She said a preliminary analysis of the GovEnergy contract by the OIG, completed early last week, did not reveal any signs of fraud, waste or abuse. "At this time, we do not see any issues warranting OIG review."

GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said the agency is still reviewing information on the cost of canceling GovEnergy, which will include reimbursements for registrants and vendors. Exhibit space costs as little as $2,850 for a 10-foot by 10-foot booth and as much as $41,000 for a 20-foot by 50-foot booth, according to the GovEnergy Web site.

"The decision [to cancel] is not a statement on the importance of the conference," the GSA statement said. "GSA believes that GovEnergy is an important gathering ... We look forward to working on planning next year's conference."

Other Cleantech Opportunities Abound

DOE spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said in an interview that the cancellation of GovEnergy won't interrupt her department's commitment to energy efficiency and innovation in the private sector.

"This isn't a one-time-of-the-year effort," she said. "We have a holistic approach. We continue to work with federal buyers and procurement officials to seek out energy efficiency and connect players in this arena."

Several exhibitors scheduled to attend this year's GovEnergy weren't even aware it had been canceled until they were contacted by InsideClimate News. They mentioned that they attend at least 100 clean energy conferences and trade shows annually.

An event such as GovEnergy was more of a rarity when it was initiated 15 years ago, during the Clinton administration.

"These days, if you if wanted to make a career attending clean energy conferences, there are enough for you to double-book every day of every week," said Freed, of the Third Way think tank. "In an era of austerity and increasing scrutiny of what government is doing, it may be that more conferences are scaled back, canceled or changed. Anybody involved in this space has to accept that and take it for what it is."

Architect and entrepreneur George Borkovich said the GSA and the vendors could overcome this temporary setback by plugging in elsewhere.

Borkovich figures the cancellation of GovEnergy might boost attendance at Ecobuild America in December, an event he has organized in the nation's capital for the last eight years. He expects one-fifth of those attending this year at the Washington Convention Center to be affiliated with the federal government.

"Pity the poor company that's putting all of its eggs in one basket and relying on one event to fill its marketing needs," said Borkovich, a principal with Massachusetts-based AEC Science & Technology LLC. "It's too bad about GovEnergy but I'm not looking in my rear view mirror. I'm looking forward."

Despite the cautious atmosphere at the GSA, the agency still has the country's largest portfolio of buildings to manage, he said. That means GSA is still in constant need of contractors, products and energy-saving devices.

"GSA is not packing up and shutting down," Borkovich said.

A spokesman for clean energy technology proponent Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) said the congressman had been looking forward to welcoming thousands of clean technology backers to his home state as the keynote speaker at GovEnergy. But he said he also "appreciate[s] the prudence shown by the GSA, in taking a close look at all conferences, to make certain taxpayer money is being spent wisely."

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