Americans want solar energy but federal help has been a drag

Viewed against last November's election results, opinion polls reveal that energy policy is the chink in Ronald Reagan's shining armor. They show not only that the President's popularity is lowest with respect to energy issues but also that the administration's energy proposals run directly counter to those that average Americans are willing to support.

Pollsters and political analysts agree that Reagan was elected as the candidate best able to rejuvenate the economy and relax inflation's grip. (An NBC/AP Poll conducted before the election indicated that roughly 40 percent of the public thought Reagan could outperform Carter on both counts while less than 20 percent thought Carter could best Reagan as an economic healer.) But if the President took this mandate to mean that Americans care only about how much energy we get -- and not about how we get it -- he made a mistake that could cost him the support needed to launch anym effective energy policy.

Reagan's energy budget proposals call for a 35 percent increase in nuclear spending for fiscal year 1982, a 68 percent decrease for solar programs, and a 79 percent decrease in spending for energy conservation programs. Among the hardest hit programs are those aimed at commercializing solar technologies that are market-ready, bringing down the costs of those technologies through government purchases, and demonstrating the feasibility of solar and conservation equipment to businesses and consumers -- programs that represent practical and near-term responses to our energy supply problems.

Yet Americans did not vote for nuclear power or against solar energy and energy conservation in the last election. Quite the contrary, according to a poll conducted by Gallup in October and November of last year, the public has another energy future in mind. Asked to rank available energy sources preferentially, 31 percent said they would most like to see solar sources developed to meet US energy demands. Energy conservation tied with oil and natural gas for a distant second (with 14 percent listing each as the most preferred option), and nuclear energy came in last with 8 percent of the respondents choosing it over all other alternatives. Some 66 percent of those surveyed listed solar energy among the top three options, a figure corroborated by a Roper and Cantril survey conducted earlier in the year for the Council on Environmental Quality.

Of course, this rift between popular and presidential will has many explanations. One that cannot be overlooked is that energy was not a major campaign issue. In fact, the same Gallup pool that revealed Americans' best- kept energy secret -- its strong support of conservation and solar energy development -- also showed that 91 percent of the sample said that the energy situation had not seriously inconvenienced them while well over half expected energy affairs to improve over the next five years.

Still, Americans' optimism is one thing, the administration's another. Redoubling emphasis on the same fuel sources whose supply vulnerability and high costs are undermining both the economy and the national defense when doing so violates the public will is both politically and economically disastrous, the more so because the technical arguments in favor of solar energy development are much stronger than the administration has acknowledged. (Indeed, the administration has suppressed the recent Solar Energy Research Institute's "A New Prosperity," a convincing study of solar and conservation potential that indicates that solar energy could provide up to 30 percent of the nation's energy during the next 20 years and help reinvigorate the economy.)

The findings of pollsters are not the grist of sound energy policy. But no energy policy can succeed without public support, particularly when public preferences coincide with the prescriptions of an increasing number of economists. Reagan's choice is to reconcile policy and public preference now -- or to wait until the next energy crisis undermines the national economy and th e President's ability to do anything about it.

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