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Solar-energy advocates try to muster support in Congress for energy tax credit increase

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1983

Gloucester, Mass.

The stream of traffic along Route 127 past the Captain's Lodge motel here is a little gentler this leaden autumn day than it was during the height of the summer tourist season. The wooden sign out in front of the lodge says ''vacancy.''

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But the 29 flat-plate solar collectors perched at various angles atop the modest gray buildings of New England's first solar motel are doing their job.

Because of their extensive roof areas and their heavy use of hot water, motels are considered some of the likeliest candidates for -solar-energy installations among small businesses.

But solar-energy advocates are concerned that unless the current federal tax credits are increased and extended, small businesses may find themselves locked into conventional energy systems.

Quickly punching a few buttons on the control panel behind the restaurant at the Captain's Lodge, owner Alan Hagstrom calls up a bright red readout. It shows that city water is coming in at 67 degrees F.; the glycol ''antifreeze'' solution in the collectors is 94 degrees. The glycol is run through a heat exchanger, which warms city water to 86 degrees. The water still must be brought up to 120 degrees before being piped into the guest rooms, but the solar system obviously shoulders much of the heating burden.

''It's hard to get a really clean figure for how much the system saves, since our gas and electric meters meter other things than just hot water. But we estimate 15 percent savings a year,'' Mr. Hagstrom says.

Solar hot-water heating is especially effective at the Captain's Lodge because the season of peak demand - summer - is also the time when the system operates at peak efficiency. Under the summer sun the glycol solution heats up to 170 degrees, and motel guests need to open the hot-water tap only a crack for their showers. ''I thought we might have problems with people scalding themselves,'' Hagstrom says. ''It hasn't happened, though.''

The blue-jeaned and flannel-shirted Hagstrom is obviously pleased with the system, installed in the spring of 1981 for $37,500.

''Eventually it's going to pay for itself - unless it blows up or something, '' he says with a chuckle to indicate how unlikely he thinks that will be.

But he doesn't go overboard in his enthusiasm. People shouldn't get into solar for instant savings, he says. ''If they're in it for a buck, it's not going to work.''

Not every small-business owner has that kind of commitment to solar energy, though. That's why solar advocates see the federal solar-energy tax credits as crucial if solar is to compete effectively in the energy marketplace. The problem, they say, is that users of conventional systems can deduct fuel costs as a business expense; solar, on the other hand, involves a major up-front capital expense, offset over time by the virtual lack of operating cost.

Solar interests are pushing to extend the credits, now due to expire at the end of 1985. They also are trying to get the credit for businesses increased from 15 percent to 20 percent. (The residential credit is 40 percent; in some but not all cases, installing solar equipment can give businesses an additional 10 percent investment tax credit.)