The mid-winter forecast for solar power: sunny and warm, as registered by public opinion polls; partly cloudy, as seen by solar-energy lobbyists; overcast with a possibility of some clearing, according to private industry.
Ironically, the real weather of 1979-80 has been relatively mild, and this seems to have insured sluggishness in the solar industry for at least another year. In this sense, the American public seems to be but a foul-weather friend of solar power.
"To tell you the truth, we were sort of hoping for a bad winter," says Luana Moore, director of the Solar Energy Institute of North America. "But with the mild winter we are having, it appears as though we have the same old problem of people putting off solar once again."
The solar "movement" as a whole has yet to convert popular sentiment into widespread, sustained construction. The building and installation of solar-energy units is expanding, reports the institute, but the expansion is very slow. Profits are marginal; production has not risen significantly since 1978. The number of installations remains below the industry's own goals.
Yet solar energy remains popular with politicians and the public. During 1979, two major opinion polls showed strong support for solar energy. A Lou Harris Poll indicated 94 percent of the population felt the sun could contribute significantly to energy needs. An NBC-Associated Press poll indicated 50 percent of US adults would prefer solar power as their main energy source for the year 2000.
The private sector may get a break if Congress passes legislation designed to stimulate solar conversions. One administration-backed bill would set up a solar/conservation bank designed to subsidize loans to homeowners, renters, landlords, farmers, and business. This would enable individuals to obtain financing for solar-energy systems, surmounting the obstacle of the $1,000 -and-up cost. Another potential boon to solar energy is an expansion of the income tax credits to include "passive" in addition to "active" solar adaptations. Congress is in the final stage of considering both of these measures.
Of the presidential contenders, only California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. is given passing marks by proponements of solar energy. The Carter administration's 1981 budget is being criticized for "saying the right things," but not following up with money for solar research.
An administration analysis of the 1981 budget says President Carter "has committed the nation to supplying 20 percent of its needs from solar energy, including hydropower, by the turn of the century." But Herbert R. Epstein of the Solar Lobby told Congress during recent hearings on the Department of Energy 1981 authorization that solar programs make up only 13 percent of the department's budget. Adjusted for inflation, Mr. Epstein says, this yields a 3 percent reduction in funding for solar power.
The Solar Lobby criticized a proposed cut in funds for development of "passive" systems.
Although commercial applications are sluggish, industrial research is turning up some promising technical developments. The high costs of photovoltaic cells could begin to decrease in the next three to five years as solar industry leaders (among the top companies: ARCO Solar, Energy Conversion Devices, Photon Power, SES, and Solarex) begin mass production. But the technology still is not standardized and the markets have not been fully explored. In an effort to overcome these problems, the Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents 300 solar companies, has designed a marketing plan to push solar power.
In addition to the fight over federal spending, Dick Munson, coordinator of the Solar Lobby, says solar interest groups are beginning to concentrate on policing the industry to ensure that customers are being protected and that large companies do not dominate the market.