Solar gets royal treatment in Texas, where oil is king

In the state where oil is king, solar energy is finally getting some respect. Texas, with its wealth of oil and natural gas reserves, has long emphasized two approaches to dwindling conventional energy supplies -- drill, and drill some more.

However, with state production of oil and gas continuing to slip, Texas has developed what many consider its first comprehensive policy to exploit another rich resource: sunshine.

The Texas Energy and Natural Resources Advisory Council (TENRAC), which formulates broad energy policy for the state, late last year adopted 25 recommendations to spur solar development. The most significant of those recommendations now are being introduced in the Texas Legislature.

"The realization is dawning that Texas must conserve and stretch out its supply of oil and gas," says Russel E. Smith of the Texas Solar Energy Society. That recognition has forced the state to look at a whole range of alternate energy resources, including lignite, biomass, geothermal, and solar, he says.

The solar energy recommendations requiring legislative action would:

* Form a nonprofit corporation to make low-interest loans for new homes using solar energy, or for the retrofitting of homes for solar equipment.

* Establish uniform requirements for licensing solar installers in the state.

* Expand and existing franchise tax exemption to include companies that manufacture or install solar equipment as part of their overall business. Only firms exclusively in the solar business now qualify.

* Increase state funding of solar research and development to $5 million in fiscal 1982 and to $9 million the following year. (TENRAC has spent a total of about $1 million on solar energy development to date.)

* Require all new state buildings constructed after August 1981 to use solar energy.

Many of these steps have already been taken in other states, and Mr. Smith considers Texas a laggard in solar development, particularly among the Sunbelt states.

However, he and other observers say that could change if the Texas commitment to solar energy blossoms from this basic start. The prospects for the package of solar legislation is uncertain, but it clearly has strong political support: The chairman of TENRAC is Gov. William P. Clements, and Lt. Gov. William Hobby and House Speaker Billy Clayton are the co-chairmen.

It is technologically and economically possible to produce 20 percent of the state's energy needs from solar energy by the year 2000, says Dr. Jack Howell, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. This achievement will require legislative action to "remove the institutional barriers to solar development" and a new awareness that Texas "is not just an oil and gas state," he says.

Ironically, the sunny, warm Texas climate has actually made solar energy unattractive here. Solar systems that got the most public attention and advanced the fastest technologically during the 1970s were those designed for heating homes. "What Texas needed was solar air conditioning," says Dr. Alvin Hildebrandt of the University of Houston, "but those systems still are not cost- effective."

However, solar systems that generate electricity have strong potential in Texas and are beginning to prove themselves technologically. Texas utilities have been heavy users of natural gas but, by federal law, they must find alternate fuels by 1990.

"This technology is now coming through fruition," says Dr. Hildebrandt. He is involved in a major project in Barstow, Calif., that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of solar "repowering" -- a technology for adapting existing fossil fuel power plants to use solar energy.

A similar project using different technology is being developed in the small town of Crosbyton in west Texas. An experimental solar collector has been tested successfully for one year, and its sponsors hope to begin building later this year a full-scale facility that will use both solar energy and fossil fuel to generate the town's electricity.

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