Texas solar project loses steam as US funds dwindle

Through no fault of its own, solar energy is losing some of its shine in this small west Texas town, which has become something of a sun-power pioneer.

True, the sun hanging over Crosbyton's 2,282 residents like an unblinking klieg light is a far better electricty source than anyone dared hope. Ordinary sunshine, focused by a space-age mirrored bowl 65 feet across, has been producing 1,000 degree high-pressure steam here since January 1980.

The steam in turn drives a 10-kilowatt electricity generating plant. This part of the Crosbyton Solar Power Project operates like clockwork.

What threatens to shut down the world's first commercial electricity system produced from solar-generated steam is something much more down to earth -- money.

This country-crossroads town may lose out in the federal government's allocation of funds. And even if more funds eventually trickle down from Washington, Crosbyton's patience may have run out.

To date, the Department of Energy has pumped $6 million into the town's demonstration solar power plant. For another $35 million, the town and Texas Tech University from nearby Lubbock can build ten 200-foot solar bowls. The finished plant could turn out 5 megawatts of electricity and be coupled with a standby natural gas system for days when the sun isn't shining. The plant would provide an electricity surplus for Crosbyton where present demand is 3.6 megawatts.

The reason for impatience is that the town itself has spent $100,000 on the project, along with donating 100 acres of cotton fields. City secretary Norton Barrett expected the full-size plant to be operating by now. Instead, it can't be completed before 1986, even with full funding, says John D. Reichert, Texas Tech University electrical engineering professor and the solar project's director.

After dozens of trips to testify before congressional committees in Washington, Crosbyton officials have learned how slowly Washington can move. Dr. Reichert says that seven years of such efforts ''gave us all a powerful lesson in civics, in how the nation works and sometimes how it doesn't work.'' As a result of Washington's sluggishness, the town decided to plug itself into a regional electricity network instead of switching directly from its local plant to the new sun-powered system.

The latest Reagan budget cuts put new clouds on the horizon. The town's solar plant continues to operate with last year's funds. But these funds run out May 31. Reichert says that without additional funds, ''the only three men with systems-level experience in running a solar power plant'' will lose their jobs, the solar bowl will be mothballed, and the project's two computers used to monitor the plant's performance shut down.

Gerald Braun, director of the Department of Energy's division of solar thermal technology, expects the Crosbyton project to shut down. With the department's solar-thermal budget scheduled to drop from fiscal 1982's $54.95 million to $18.05 million for 1983, he sees no funds for Crosbyton. The Crosbyton project, he told the Monitor, ''would not be high enough on our list of priorities.'' One problem, he said, is that the administration sees no indication of private sector support for a Crosbyton-type power plant.

What galls Crosbyton most is that $9.5 million of 1983's $18.05 million will go to the Solar One project in Barstow, Calif. This $141 million, 10-megawatt solar power plant began producing electricity last week, using a different approach from Crosbyton's. With the Barstow system, 1,818 separate racks of mirrors move constantly to reflect the moving sun onto a stationary steam boiler. Crosbyton keeps its heavy mirrors fixed and instead moves its relatively light-weight boiler to catch the reflected sunlight.

Dr. Reichert and his colleagues at Texas Tech believe that their ''hemispherical bowl'' concept is far simpler and cheaper to operate than the Barstow ''tower heliostat'' concept. Reichert argues that both systems should be funded rather than writing off one before its full commercial value can be assessed. In his view, both concepts eventually will be needed as part of the mix of conventional, solar, and nuclear sources needed to fuel the world.

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