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Will solar research survive new cutbacks?

What's being trimmed -- the "fat," or the heart of the program? So goes the controversy surrounding major cutbacks in the nation's solar research efforts. The Solar Energy Research Institute, intended to the nation's bell- wether for solar energy development, is facing an $85 million (63 percent) reduction of the $135 million fiscal 1982 budget projected for it by the Carter administration. About one-third of the institute's personnel are to be laid off.

Most solar advocates, however, agree with George Lof of The Solaron Company when he complains that "federal programs have been one of our worst enemies." First, a multiyear delay on the part of Congress in passage of solar tax credits depressed the market. High costs and poor performance of solar homes built under the federal Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act added to solar's image problems. Furthermore, many experts feel a number of the government's solar programs (like the "power tower" -- a large field of mirrors focusing light on a tower to generate electricity) are ill- considered.

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Denis Hayes, recently dismissed as director of SERI, puts the blame for these problems squarely on the bureaucrats who populate the Department of Energy. He maintains that excessive administrative requirements levied on SERI by DOE have kept it from being as effective as it should have been. But he also said that the new cutbacks constitute "open war on solar energy."

What is happening at SERI is symptomatic of overall federal support for solar energy. Mr. Reagan's proposed federal budget for 1982 includes a total solar reduction of 66.5 percent: down from $576 million in 1981 to $193 million in 1982.

Specifically, this includes: eliminating the program to extract heat from the ocean; a 76 percent reduction in support for so-called passive solar building design which makes use of south-facing windows and heat storing materials for space heating; a 76 percent cut in federally supported a development of wind trbines; a 70 percent reduction in efforts to improve solar collectors for water and space heating; a 52 percent reduction in support for alcohol fuels; and a 60 percent drop in federal efforts to make solar cells a cost-effective source of electricity on Earth.

Solar advocates see this as a major setback in efforts to develop alternative and nonconventional energy sources. Since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, it has been an uphill struggle to get national support for solar energy. Not until President Carter announced a "national goal" of 20 percent solar energy by the year 2000 was this form of energy officially sanctioned. Even then, Mr. Carter was unwilling to spend the $5 billion per year which a number of experts believed necessary to reach this target.

Consistent with the Reagan administration's philosophy of little or no involvement in areas that it sees as the domain of the private sector, the Public Information Office of the Department of Energy says that the cutbacks will ultimately be an added stimulus to energy research -- not a deterrent. According to Maria Oharenko, DOE Public Information Officer, the cutbacks should not be seen as a matter of pulling the rug out from under the nation's energy research.

What is happening, she says, is a "redirecting" of SERI to what she referred to as "high risk, high payoff projects" designed to take basic research goals to a "proof-of- concept" stage.

At this point, she says, the idea is to "pass the ball into the court of the private sector" Industry, for example, would be ready to further the research because the high risks of undertaking it would have been absorbed by the government.

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