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Americans want solar energy but federal help has been a drag

The new Reagan budget calls for cuts of about 60 percent in spending for solar energy in fiscal 1982. This is a splendid first step toward eliminating one of the most flagrant areas of federal waste. What remains to do now is simply finish the job.

The expression about a camel being a horse designed by a committee is a perfect metaphor for the government's past solar efforts. From their inception, government solar programs have rarely if ever reflected the needs of manufacturers, sellers, or buyers. Rather, they reflected the predilections of Energy Research and Development Agency (and later Department of Energy) planners , and the venal and misdirected attempts of special interests to cash in on the technology's popularity.

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How else can one explain the incredible nature of federal involvement in this field? Though solar technology is inherently simple, most federal spending has gone into research and development. Though insulation is diffuse and everywhere , the big government contracts have aimed at creating centralized collecting facilities. Though the solar industry could have been helped directly in any of a dozen ways, it was "aided" indirectly in a manner that was often devastating.

One walks through the rubble of these activities in awe. Here we find solar "demonstrations" with collectors in the shade and $100,000 projects that haven't worked in years because the circulating fluid has gone rancid; a former Mitre consultant making $75,000 a year to help "commercialize" solar in the Northeast; enough "hot lines" to heat Philadelphia; and a Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo., which even by the pathetic standards of mid-1970s contracting doesn't qualify as a proposal factory.

Early on, when it became clear to those who live by the federal purse that solar was a comer, the rush was on to get a piece of the pie. The so-called consumer movement was first to put in its claims, and it was so successful that prospective solar equipment buyers were scared out of the market for three years. The hi-tech contractors were right on their hells with a host of Buck Rogers schemes. For a time, one could attend "women and solar" seminars in a dozen states. And lest the poor feel desolarized, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act began paying the cost of solar installation instruction -- though there was not, at the time, enough work to keep regular installers busy.

The end of much of this ham through intervention of the Office of Management and Budget is gratifying. And the fact that traditional defenders of the solar budget in Congress are preoccupied with saving money for social programs seems to ensure that proposed cuts here will not be restored, as they have in past years. The problem with the cuts, however, is their partisanship. "Liberal" components of the solar budget like commercialization and public information are to go by the boards, but big vendor-oriented "conservative" components like orbiting solar satelites and huge desert collecting stations are to continue. They shouldn't. these projects are only futile attempts to harness the revolutionary decentralizing quality of solar energy to the existing electrical grid.

The proper ways for government to promote solar technology are obvious -- and already working. The largest tax credit in US history is in place to encourage purchses of solar equipment. If will bring (through tax write-offs) some $216 million into the solar heating and cooling market in 1982. Since 1979, when it became effective, this credit has been the basis of the sort of real growth that "support programs" totally failed to bring.

The same type of tax-sheltered limited partnerships cropping up to provide capital for scores of other technologies will certainly be used to finance photovoltaic research and development. This mode of capitalization is infinitely preferable to direct federal subsidies which are hardly ever cost-effective and almost always politicized.

In its lust to be helpful, Congress and the federal bureaucracy set solar development back at least five years and wasted billions of dollars. It's time to put an end to this nonsense. Buyers, sellers, capital, and state-of- the-art solar equipment are all available now. Solar grantsmen should be encouraged to move on to defense work, and the poignancy- through-government-service crowd to find another cause to fill the va cuum of their days.

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