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Studies put heat on DOE solar project; GAO, OTA reports: many projects overbuilt not cost effective, and they often malfunction

In mid-1979, the White House "went solar." The project was sponsored by the solar and conservation program within the US Department of Energy (DOE). Total cost:$41,000, and the system is working fine.

But there is a catch:The system cost four times more than it should have. Consequently, according to solar energy experts, it never will pay for itself.

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The White House solar project underscores the findings of a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report, which found that solar demonstration projects sponsored by the DOE "just aren't practical." The central issue is the cost effectiveness of the programs the DOE is instituting.

Another report, issued June 11 by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), says in the words of project director Alan Crane. "The DOE has stated its solar energy goals for the year 2000 but it doesn't have any clear idea on how it's getting from here to there."

Mr. Crane says the solar projects call for "detailed thinking" and should "key in with other solar interests in order to coordinate a comprehensive program. The solar project people are not a bunch of incompetents. They just have a whole slew of problems to solve."

Neither report rules out solar power s a viable energy source. But they point out federal solar efforts that have failed, thereby discouraging further interest and development.

According to Brian Pardo, president of American Solar King Corporation and assistant researcher for the OTA report, the White House system was just one example of many overly designed, detailed, and constructed projects.

"For instance, the solar rack on the White House is strong enough to support a Sherman tank," he says. The system is actually a very simple hot water setup that is "an engineering monstrosity."

Says Tom Melloy, team coordinator of the GAO study, "With all the leakage and breakdown problems -- o ut of 104 projects, 55 are inoperable -- we doubt the DOE program sets a very good example."

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This poses an image problem for the solar industry, which is trying to provide the public with an accurate picture of solar energy's benefits.

One problem is that the DOE awards contracts to companies that may know very little about the solar industry. These companies are "learning as they go."

"Rather than awarding contracts to companies who know what they're doing," says Mr. Pardo, "the DOE is dealing with firms used to doing business with the government. As a result, price and expertise becomes lesser factors."

For example, the Capitol Development Board Project in Springfield, Ill., is being constructed for a Department of Agriculture building. So far, the building has been redesigned four times. Thus, costs have jumped four times.

Another problem is the "prematurity" of the programs being constructed. Mr. Crane suggests that Congress is pushing the DOE hard. "The idea seems to be that production will get costs down. While this may be true in principle, the fact is some programs just aren't technologically ready to be pushed."

Ineffective management is another problem, says a spokseman for the Washington-based Solar Lobby. "There are a lot of demands being made on a staff which is too small for the number of programs being deministrated. What staff the solar program does have could be improved," he says.

The studies indicate that DOE needs to set realistic goals and stick to them. Says the OTA report. "The solar program must develop its own perspective in keeping with long-range planning."

The GAO suggests that all solar demonstration projects presently operating be reevaluted and any faults corrected. Also, practical projects that function well should be emphasized to encouraging wider use of solar energy.

While Bennett Miller, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for solar energy, sees many of the reports' accusations as "flawed," he says the department is responding with improvements for the solar program.

Staffing is being increased in almost all solar areas, reports Mr. Miller. Also, annual across-the-board evaluation of solar energy will be instituted. "We can't force people to use solar energy, but we can make sure the industry is progressing as it should," he explains.

Program management also is being improved. Concludes Mr. Miller, "I think we'll go a long way in the next year in blunting critcisms levelled by the reports."

The DOE solar program began after Congress passed the Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act in 1974. The act was an effort to encourage the widespread use of solar energy.

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