A fresh glow at the solar institute

A town named Golden seems somehow an appropriate place for a think tank devoted to developing solar energy. Here, in an office complex at the foot of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, the UD Department of Energy operates the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). some 750 biologits, engineers, chemists, economists, and other experts work at SERI on projects ranging from designing, building, and testing solar generating equipment, to studying the economics of solar in relation to other energy sources.

The atmosphere at SERI today radiates a sense of purpose. The spirit among the staff seems reminiscent of past efforts such as the Manhattan Project which created the atomic bomb, or the NASA manned space-flight program of the 1960s. In each instance, a unit within a larger agency has been provided with a wealth of scientific talent and abundant financing, and charged with attaining a particular goal: tunring nuclear fission to military purposes; putting a man on the moon by 1970; or, in this case, speeding the development and use of renewable energy technologies.

Although SERI was founded in 1977, the sense of a mission to remove the US from dependency on imported oil through rapid pursuit of energy alternatives is a more recent phenomenon. Former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger appointed Paul Rappaport, then head of the Applied Materials Lab at RCA's DAvid Sarnoff Research Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, as SERI's first director. With Mr. Rappaport's reputation for cautiousness in weighing the merits of solar -- and the other renewable biomass, wind, and ocean thermal sources which SERI investigates -- the solar lobby became impatient with SERI's progress.

After concerted pressure on the Carter administration from public interest groups and individuals favoring a crash solar development program, Mr. Rappaport was replaced in July of 1979 by the present director, Denis Hayes, a veteran of the environmental movement. The leadership transition at SERI has caused a significant turnover -- some would say purge -- of the staff, replacing more equivocal academic analysts with stronger advocates of renewable energy.

The new advocacy role of SERI is perhaps most directly broght to bear in the buildings division. The staff of this section works with the fledgling solar manufacturing industry to hasten the availability of practical solar technology, and with the building industry and individual homeowners to encourage applications of the technology in new construction and retrofit to existing buildings. The division pursues passive solar design to enhance the energy efficiency of buildings, as well as the installation of active solar systems for water and space heating and cooling.

The buildings division provides grants of $50,000 to builders simply to have their plans reviewed by a solar-trained architect, who recommends design changes to optimize the passive values of the environment for heating and cooling. A 50 percent or greater energy savings can often be achieved by measures such as facing a structure north/south, increasing window area in south and decreasing it in the north, or pouring extra concrete under the floor to absorb and radiate heat. When incorporated in the design phase, these modifications increase the ost of a new home or office only minutely.

Both business and the public, however, are more hesitant to adopt active solar systems. Despite SERI educational efforts, bankers still look askance at financing solar construction projects, out of concern that the public will not buy solar homes. Even with solar tax credits in most states, up to 55 percent in a state like California, it seems psychologically easier for homeowners to spend mounting sums incrementally for monthly energy bills than to invest the $1 ,500-2,500 at one time which would equip a standard home with solar collectors. Negative rumors about leakage and inefficiency of the available solar components have also left the public with a wait-and-see attitude.

Opinions vary about the effect the present building recession with have upon the prospects for solar construction. Staff of SERIhs buildings division see positive signs that builders may be using the hiatus to re-evaluate their work and develop strategies for making their homes more appealing in a period of high competition among builders for a market constricted by tight money. Yet the conviction among builders in this state seems to be that the current downturn is the result of Federal Reserve Board and Carter administration policies, and has little to do with the product they offer the public, since demand was consistently brisk before the recession.

The logic of increasing energy prices must soon become clear to homeowners, and the gains from even passive solar design so far outweigh the minimal design costs that builders should be inclined towards at least this approach to energy efficiency, once they become informed. Education of the public, builders, and the financial establishment is thus extremely important to the goal of increasing the contribution of solar energy to the US economy. With a budget totaling over $100 million this year, and its new spirit of advocacy, the Solar Energy Research Institute promises to play an increasingly important role in this education effort.

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