Big cities try alternate energy in big way

New York City has a splattering of fuel- saving windmills throughout its five boroughs. Philadelphia has almost as many solar collectors on private dwellings as sundrenched Houston. St. Louis is a leader in energy conservation.

The nation's energy crunch has sent big cities exploring alternative energy systems in a big way.

In May 1981, Philadelphia will host what is expected to be the largest solar energy conference in US history. And St. Louis Mayor James Conway is spearheading greater federal assistance for the growing alternate-energy needs of the big cities. "It is absolutely essential that federal assistance be available to help cities become active partners in fulfilling national energy objectives," Mayor Conway said in a recent hearing of the joint subcommittee on energy and power in Washington.

The hearing focused attention on a wide range of congressional proposals to establish a closer federal-city relationship for local energy management. US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D) of New York and others have introduced bills calling for direct federal assistance to cities to help them foster energy strategies.

In the meantime, Philadelphia and many other big cities are forging ahead with the first fruits of existing federally funded studies and programs. One recent study has concluded that 95 percent of the houses in Philadelphia -- around 400,000 separate residential dwellings -- could easily be fitted with solar collector or other solar devices.

While comparatively few Philadelphians have such solar equipment, Michael Ervolini of the Philadelphia Energy Management Program notes that progress in residential use should grow steadily from now on, augmented by a new city feasibility study of solar energy.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia soon will use the power of the sun to heat a municipal garage.

Randy Arndt, a spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C., says that just as US automakers are switching to the production of small, energy-saving cars, cities are also "retooling" "with a lot of new innovation" in the alternative-energy field.

In the New York City, Citicorp, which owns the sleek 59-story Citicorp Building, is reevaluating the economic feasibility of installing solar collectors on its famous roof which slants at an agreeable 45-degree angle. A spokesman for Citicorp say that with the ever-rising prices of heating oil and electricity, the idea of rooftop solar panels is making better sense every day.

Although the power from today's windmills in the Big Apple would not light the Empire State Building, more and more of them are turning in the breeze from the Lower East Side to the South Bronx, from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to Riverdale in the Bronx. And the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, New York City's largest, has successfully completed a pilot project that converts refuse from a mammoth municipal garbage site on Staten Island into usable methane gas for heating homes. The gas company has city approval to take the program out of the demonstration phase, and gas from the dump could actually be hearing many thousands of homes by early 1981.

At least one city, San Diego, has a new law on the books requiring every new home to include some kind of solar-energy component -- even if it is only to heat water.

"Alternate energy policy is not going to be developed in Washington, D.C., but in the hinterlands," says Christopher Freitas of the US Department of Energy in Washington and a specialist in alternate forms of energy.

Chicago, he says, is a model of a major metropolitan city that is burning waste for heat and electricity. He says that the city even expects to sell excess heat at some time in the future. About the only alternate form of energy that isn't being envisioned for the nation's cities is "wood power," Mr. Freitas adds.

Helping both individuals and city administrators generate new alternate energy projects is the President's Clearinghouse for Community Energy Efficiency in Washington, which has a national hot-line number for calls ranging from requests about windmills to pending energy legislation. Last year this office received about 70 inquiries a week. This year the requests are averaging about 96 a week, according to clearinghouse spokeswoman Nancy Barry.

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