Does Congress Have the Energy?

I follow DCGreen Scene on Twitter and they tipped me to something called the "Annual Congressional Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Expo & Forum". As it was open to the public, I thought, hey, why not? Here's a chance to see some environmental discussions taking place in the belly of beast. The format was this: a bunch of renewable/efficient technology companies and nonprofits, split into panels by sector (solar, fuel cells, policy, biomass, etc.), standing in front of a cramped room in the Cannon House Office Building pitching their wares and ideas to the audience, and with hope, to the smattering of representatives and senators who were there.

The biofuels panel faced questions on lifecycle costs and food prices. The Senate recently voted to end ethanol subsidies.
Supportive congresspeople and administration officials also sporadically broadcast encouraging remarks over the din of the exhibit hall.

Senator Udall touts the benefits of the DOD Energy Security Act (DODESA)
Themes that surfaced in the few hours I was there:

* ROI. Knowing how resistant consumers and politicians are to typically higher up-front costs of these technologies, panelists liked to state the point at which folks earn their investment back. Most seemed to be in the 1-3 year range.
* Systems and Lifecycles. The importance of accounting for the energy spent in all stages of the production process. Engineering better grids, electrical systems and water facilities. Not too sexy, but oh so important.
* China. "China's doing this, China's doing that. Why aren't we?" The biofuels panel pushed this.
* Retrofitting. You don't need to build brand new to implement this stuff.
* Department of Defense. The military is an enormous energy suck. DOD's recently begun implementing some measures to address that, by both congressional and internal mandates. Renewables stand to benefit. There's some circular irony in using oil to fuel wars for oil which a Quaker lady sitting next to me pointed out.

My favorite quote (and seemingly, the audience's) was from Eric Huffman, Sales Manager for a daylighting company: "There's nothing more efficient than 'off'". The LED guy who followed him quipped that LED was next best to "off". CFLs already seem old-school.

Is this where the real discussions take place?
So what's the take-home message here? Well, I learned some new things, like how many mercury-laden 4-ft florescent tube lights are thrown away each year (600 million) and what Methanol is and that the Longworth Building cafeteria serves a pretty good sweet potato side. But I can't shake the feeling that the really influential discussions happen elsewhere -- I'm so pessimistic I assume most policymakers view renewables as a quirky curiosity. The record backs this up, despite advocates presence in congress today and renewables' growing popularity. And dang it, Mr. President, where are your solar panels?