Shortchanging the solar budget

At a time of skyrocketing energy prices, threats of war to protect oil fields in the politically unstable Middle East, and accidents at nuclear reactors, you would think the Carter administration would aggressively push to use US energy more efficiently and to develop domestic renewable energy resources. So you would think.

But while the White House continues to espouse the solar transition, it has cutm the Department of Energy's solar budget by 7 percent in real dollars. If inflation is taken into account -- and it must be -- the research and development budget for conservation was slashed by 12 percent. Moreover, President Carter slashed the initial budget for the Solar and Conservation Banks -- which were to provide interest subsidies to consumers -- by 90 percent from $ 450 million to only $47.5 million.

To gain some perspective, consider the proposed expenditures for other technologies. Spending for synthetic fuels has already increased 500 percent, or $2.2 billion, for fiscal year 1980. And although the proposed nuclear R&D (research and development) budget was trimmed slightly, it is still double that for solar energy R&D.

The White House will, of course, say that total solar expenditures are up to and loans programs will be approved by Congress. The statement is doubly deceptive because the total reflects both subsidies and the DOE budget. If the administration did the same for conventional fuels -- oil, coal, and nuclear power -- we would find an even larger federal bias toward centralized, nonrenewable resources.

If you dig into the Carter proposals, you find something less than an aggressive commitment.

1. The solar budget for fiscal year 1981 is $175 million less than what the administration's experts claim is necessary to achieve Carter's own goal -- having solar power capture 20 percent of the US energy market by the year 2000. According to Rep. Richard Ottinger, "Money hasn't matched the rhetoric, and at the proposed level of support, the 20 percent goal is a sham and illusion."

2. Funds for community energy systems and solar ponds have been slashed. (These are not exotic technologies. Similar solar ponds are right now providing communities in Israel and Sweden with low-temperature heat and electricity.)

3. The Carter administration has virtually wiped out the congressionally approved Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program. (Photovoltaics are solar cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity.) DOE continues to shy away from near-term dispersed applications of solar cells and to push toward long-term uses at centralized facilities.

4. The proposed budget for biomass research (on the conversion of plants and wastes into fuels) has barely kept pace with inflation.

5. The funds for distributing solar curriculum materials to elementary and secondary schools have been cut.

6. Contrary to the National Energy Act's $100 million authorization, the Carter administration is terminating the program to install solar equipment on federal buildings.

7. The budget for converting urban waste to energy is $2 million less than it was in the 1980 program -- even though waste disposal is the second biggest expense facing cities today.

Not every line item is bad news. Market development and training programs, for example, have been increased. But if President Carter is to achieve his conservation and solar goals, he must back up his fine words with a budgetary commitment.

Recognizing that the Carter administration has forfeited the lead in the movement toward energy self-reliance, communities and households across the country are beginning to take conservation and solar measures on their own. Those local efforts will and should continue. But to encourage those efforts, Congress must provide the budget increases -- seed money for an energy hedge.

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