Climate, AI and energy security drive CERAWeek confab

Washington D.C. Correspondent
An illustration of a group of people milling about in front of a sign that says
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

HOUSTON — One of the world’s largest energy conferences, beginning today in Texas, is embracing clean technologies and new tools like artificial intelligence to help speed up the pace of the global energy transition.

The week-long CERAWeek conference by S&P Global is about understanding “what’s affecting everybody in every part of the energy world,” said S&P global vice chairman and CERAWeek chair Daniel Yergin.

This conference is so large and widely attended by the energy industry that it’s considered a reflection of the sector itself. Traditionally known to represent oil and natural gas companies, the event has been evolving like the industry and this year’s theme is the “multidimensional energy transition.” That’s much like the world itself, which has largely been dependent on fossil fuels but is ramping up cleaner energy.

Amena Saiyid and Cat Clifford will be on the ground at CERAWeek. Check out Cipher’s Top Reads and Hot Takes to keep up with their coverage and impressions at the conference. If you’re there too, reach out: [email protected] and [email protected].

CERAWeek will be the first major industry gathering since last year’s United Nations climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, known as COP28, where global governments committed for the first time to transition away from fossil fuels and to triple the world’s renewable energy installations.

This year’s conference will provide a forum to discuss what these global commitments will require, including financing, scaling up clean technologies and addressing the ever-widening climate financing gap between wealthier and poorer nations. Overshadowing these commitments are very real energy security concerns due to wars in Ukraine and Gaza fueling inflation, high interest rates and supply chain worries.

CERAWeek will feature the energy sector “taking stock of what came out of the UN summit, but also what will happen in the future and at what pace,” Yergin told Cipher. “It’s a way to assess what are the paths forward, and I want to emphasize that the word ‘path’ is plural, because there isn’t a single path forward,” he added.

Pronounced seer-a, CERA stands for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consulting firm founded in 1983 by Yergin and James Rosenfeld, senior vice president of S&P Global.

Held for the first time that year and every year since (except 2020), CERAWeek is hosting more than 1,000 speakers and at least 9,000 attendees — more than double the numbers in 2018 — from about 80 countries.

For more than 30 years, technology and innovation discussions were sprinkled throughout a program dominated by conventional fossil fuel giants. In 2017, given the growing interest in clean technologies, CERAWeek organizers added a technology and innovation program known as Agora, Greek for “an open place for assembly.”

Spread across the fourth floor of Houston’s vast George R. Brown Convention Center, the Agora space is set to host more than 400 sessions, including 70 on hydrogen, 12 on artificial intelligence and six on fusion (all on top of discussions at the primary conference in another space in the center), according to online searches of the agenda last week.

Last year, 225 startups participated in these hubs. Yergin expects a “substantially higher number” this year.

AI, which will have perhaps the widest impact on society and the energy sector of any topic on the agenda at CERAWeek, will be particularly buzzy.

“Whether it’s a Microsoft or an Amazon or Google, or whether it’s a mature electric power company or an oil and gas firm, what is going to be the impact of the AI revolution on their operations?” Yergin said.

Beyond the tech buzz, headlines will likely come from ministers and other top government officials slated to attend. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president who is also group head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the UAE’s minister of industry and technology;
  • Elnur Sultanov, the energy minister from Azerbaijan, next year’s COP29 host;
  • Alexandre Silveira, minister of mines and energy in Brazil, COP30 host;
  • Pallavi Jain Govil, director general for hydrocarbons, ministry of petroleum and natural gas in India;
  • Stuart R. Young, minister of energy and energy industries, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago;
  • Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. Energy Department secretary;
  • John Podesta, the new U.S. special envoy for climate (replacing John Kerry, who stepped down earlier this month).

For all the talk expected on climate change and cleaner energy, Houston remains the global oil and gas capital, a city inside the country producing the most oil and gas in the world.

You can expect a lively debate — and possibly protests — about the Biden administration’s recent decision to pause exports of liquefied natural gas. Most of these massive export terminals are within a few hours’ drive from Houston. The agenda reflects the coming debate: More than 100 sessions come up when searching for liquefied natural gas. Last year, environmental activists staged a protest outside the meeting venue against the Biden administration’s continued support for fossil fuel projects.

But the city is also becoming a magnet for wind, solar and a range of other clean technologies. In fact, many of the biggest proposals for clean hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage in the U.S. are also in Texas.