With the Carter administration's acceptance Aug. 10 of a plank pledging more federal dollars to solar projects than to synthetic fuel programs, there now is a commitment in the Democratic Party platform to what proponents believe will be a more aggressive federal solar energy program.
The White House's decision to accept the terms of a platform committee minority report on solar energy was reached independently and not as a result of political pressure, according to Stuart Eizenstat, the President's domestic affairs adviser.
But the move was chalked up as a victory for solar energy activists, who reportedly had gathered a coalition of some 1,700 delegates, a cross section from both the Kennedy and Carter camps, behind the minority report, which had been scheduled for a Tuesday debate on the convetion floor.
(The minority report does not replace the majority plank, which calls for a commitment to solar energy; it instead strengthens it by specifically pledging greater federal funds to solar programs.)
Platform planks, however, are only a party statement -- and are not binding on a presidential candidate. For example, after the platform committee, adopted a strong antinuclear plank in June -- a plank vigorously opposed by the White House and generally conceded to be a major victory for antinuclear activists -- President Carter approved a communique at the Venice economic summit which called for an increase in "the role of nuclear energy."
Solar power proponents praise Mr. Carter for his decision over a year ago to set an official goal of meeting 20 percent of the nation's energy needs with solar power by the year 2000.
They applaud, as well, the spending of nearly $1 billion on solar programs in fiscal year 1980 and the reorganization of the Department of Energy which brougth solar programs under the administration of one DOE branch, instead of scattered among five assistant secretaries, as in the past.
But they remain suspicious of the White House's commitment to solar energy. And they are critical of the solar program, which even government studies say has been poorly managed and is insufficient to ensure reaching the 20 percent goal by the year 2000.
"The general problem I would cite [the Carter administration] for is a heck of a lot more pro-solar rhetoric than substance," says Richard Munson, director of The Solar Lobby, which along with the Campaign for Safe Energy, has pushed the solar issue here.
Such comments are brushed aside by administration officials, who point to Mr. Carter's solar record.
For example, says Energy Secretary Charles W. Duncan Jr., the average federal exependitures on solar energy for the years 1973 to 1976 were $25 million a year. By contrast, he explained, the White House has requested $1.14 billion for solar expenditures in fiscal year 1981. In addition, the administration expects to refund $355 million in solar energy tax credits that year.
At issue in the minority report on solar funding is the nearly $20 billion that had been targeted for synthetic fuel development between now and 1987. Solar advocates contend that under the newly adopted report at least an equal amount of money should be targeted for solar programs, while Mr. Duncan explains that this money is set aside for loan backups for private synthetic fuel projects and is not expected to be spent.
"My expectation is the goverment won't have to perform on the loan guarantees ," said Mr. Duncan in an interview. "We expect these projects to be commercially viable and that will permit us to spend more money on solar."
Despite such assurances and the acceptance of the minority report, solar advocates are continuing their fight. They have already outlined, and are trying to gather political clout behind, specific spending proposals to bolster the minority report. These includes $200 million in supplemental appropriations to the 1981 solar budget, which now stands at about $650 million; and $300 million in 1981 supplemental appropriations, to be upped to over $800 million in 1982, for the newly created Solar and Conservation Bank.
Congress is debating funding for the bank, which will provide low-interest loans to people who want to invest in solar or conservation equipment.