It is harvest time in the Texas high plains, even though the cotton fields are barren and await spring planting. After years of experimenting with solar energy, rural Crosbyton in west Texas is ready to harness the sun as a steady source of local electricity.
"We have completed all the research that is necessary. It is time to build," states Dr. John D. Reichert, director of the solar project and a professor at nearby Texas Tech University.
Dr. Reichert and town residents envision a new power plant for Crosbyton that will use 80 percent fossil fuel and 20 percent solar energy to generate electricity. The solar portion would represent considerable cost saving.
A prototype solar collector, which is a model for the full-scale power plant, has been generating steam successfully for more than a year. And its designers now want to proceed with a commercial project. They are ready to start as soon as funds are available, and would plan to complete construction by the end of 1983.
Crosbyton's solar project is the result of a grass-roots effort begun in 1974 to find an alternative energy source to slow rapidly rising local utility rates. As it turns out, electricity rates probably will not drop with the new power plant. But the fact that the rates will remain competitive while incorporating advanced new solar technology is a positive achievement, asserts Dr. Reichert.
For solar energy in general, the effort is one of a handful in the United States trying to develop commercial solar electric power plants. No such facilities yet exist in this country.
However, whatever joy Crosbyton residents derive from knowing the hot Texas sun can turn on electric lights is tempered with awareness that federal support of solar energy may be entering a dry spell.
In his 1982 budget proposals, President Reagan has recommended cutting federal subsidies to promote solar energy development by 60 percent. He wants to shift solar funding away from "near-term development, demonstration, and commercialization efforts and into longer-range research and development projects. . . ."
That kind of shift might find the Crosbyton project, now ready for commercialization, out of step with administration priorities and short of new construction funds. The project so far has spent about $5 million in federal funds and will cost another $33 million to complete.
Still, Dr. Reichert is eager to demonstrate that the Crosbyton project is ready to leave the laboratory and enter the "real" world. Later this month he intends to wire the experimental collector into the town's electrical grid, making it the nation's first commercial application of solar power. However, the hoodup will only be temporary.
The prototype collector is a 65-foot, bowl-shaped structure lined with mirrors and cocked at an angle to reap maximum sunlight. Focusing the sun's energy on a boilerlike device, the prototype has been generating steam for 13 months under the close scrutiny of scientists and engineers. Dr. Reichert, who earlier expressed a certain amount of scientific skepticism about the project, now is optimistic.
"We have had excellent performance and our expectations have been fulfilled," he says. "The right thing to do is to build this system."
Crosbyton is planning a facility that would incorporate the same solar technology, only on a larger scale. Ten collectors, 200 feet in diameter, would be cradled in fixed concrete platforms. Each bowl would concentrate the sun's heat and produce temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees F. This heat would be focused onto a receiver that heats water to create steam. The steam is pumped through a turbine, which in turn generates electricity.
The Crosbyton project is simpler than other solar thermal concepts. One of the most advanced projects is in Barstow, Calif., where construction already is under way on a large-scale power plant that is expected to be completed late this year. The Barstow facility will contribute electricity to southern California.
The major difference between the Crosbyton and Barstow projec ts is in technology. The solar collectors in Crosbyton are fixed in place. Those in Barstow, aided by a computer, track the sun as it crosses the sky. By tracking the sun all day, the Barstow collectors will generate more heat and electriity. The Crosbyton system is simpler, and its sponsers claim it will be less costly to operate.