Solar research facility gets new lease on life

In a recent turnaround, the US Department of Energy has decided to give the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) money to build a permanent test facility. The institute has been working out of leased space since it was formed, and permanent quarters have been considered a high priority. The original proposal was for a $124 million laboratory and solar-energy showcase to be located atop of a picturesque mesa on the verge of the Rocky Mountains.

This proposal ran into difficulties within the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Office of Management and Budget. In it's fiscal 1981 budget, the Carter administration sought an initial $24 million for a more modest, $75 million project. But this was cut by the Reagan administration. However, the DOE has $9. 5 million left over from prior appropriations. This is the money it has decided to release.

This move is taken as a hopeful sign by the remaining SERI rank and file, whose budget and staff have been cut from $103 million and 970 employees in 1980 to $50 million and 650 employees today - and who are bracing for further reductions. Persistent reports have been circulating in Washington that the administration has been considering the elimination of all federal solar programs next year.

''The decision on the facility has great symbolic significance to the staff and me. It is tangible evidence that the administration is committed to solar and to SERI,'' says Dr. Harold Hubbard, the acting director. (The Midwest Research Institute, which operates SERI, had its contract extended until June 1983 after the firing of solar activist Denis Hayes from the SERI directorship last spring.)

Energy Secretary James B. Edwards, in town for a tour of SERI and a nearby nuclear plant, used the funding decision to counter solar advocates' charges that the White House is out to strangle solar and alternative energies. ''Nothing could be further from the truth,'' Mr. Edwards replied to a question concerning these allegations.

At the same time, Edwards cautioned that the release of the $9.5 million did not mean additional funds would become available. He said that the decision was made only after the institute was reorganized around the long-term, high-risk research the Reagan administration sees as the only legitimate role for government in solar energy.

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