WHEN Jimmy Carter turned down the thermostat and put solar collectors on the roof of the White House back in the 1970s, groans and snickers could be heard around the country. It seemed to be a wimpy symbol of national energy policy when sending warships to the Persian Gulf made us feel a lot better. Besides, presidents in cardigan sweaters ... well, how dorky can you get?
Mr. Carter, it turns out, was ahead of his time. Not only are solar devices on the White House (and probably your house, too, one day soon), but they may well have a ``Made in Japan'' sticker on them. Japan Times reports this month that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is fast-tracking its ``New Sunshine Program.''
Since Carter was President, manufacturing costs of solar cells have dropped from $288 per watt of output to $5.75 and are expected to fall further to $1.90 by the end of the decade, the magazine reports. ``Sanyo Electric is dreaming of satisfying the entire world's energy needs with solar energy, via a global network of superconductor grids fed by huge banks of solar cells located in the world's desert regions.''
In recent years, the federal government has taken some steps to encourage a disengagement from foreign oil and other non-renewable and polluting energy sources. But not until last week did Uncle Sam get serious about setting an example for how this should be done.
President Clinton ordered all departments of the government to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent (half-again as much as the goal in the Energy Policy Act of 1992) and increase energy efficiency by at least 20 percent by the year 2005. And that's just for starters.
The executive order is full of sticks and carrots for retrofitting old facilities and building new ones that use far less energy.
Agencies will get to keep some of the savings for other programs. Managers and teams who do particularly well will be eligible for monetary awards. And budgets to increase energy efficiency are given steep increases - four times the amount spent last year has been requested for fiscal year 1995.
Innovative financing ideas are promoted here too. An example is ``performance contracts'' in which a private company pays to install or upgrade equipment at federal facility then is reimbursed from part of the energy savings it guarantees.
Senators Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico and James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, who co-chair the Alliance to Save Energy (a research and advocacy group), point out that this already is being done at the Department of Energy's headquarters building in Washington.
A Massachusetts firm is replacing 32,777 fixtures in the Forrestal Building with more efficient lighting equipment expected to cut electricity use there by 63 percent.
Uncle Sam has been the biggest user (and waster) of energy for years. But the Alliance to Save Energy figures the new executive order will not only cut energy use dramatically but save taxpayers at least $1 billion a year. ``It really is a big step forward,'' says Alliance Vice President Mark Hopkins.
Moving toward greater energy efficiency also is a plus for the environment, and it will help encourage those US companies scrambling to compete with foreign technology and product suppliers by providing lots of business.
For years, ``soft energy path'' guru Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute has been pushing ``negawatts'' - greater efficiency as a means of lowering energy consumption. Utilities and manufacturers have started to turn his theories into practice, finding relatively cheap and simple ways to do well economically while doing good environmentally and socially.
Now the federal government is moving smartly in the same direction. In the long run, the leadership Washington provides here may be more important than the actual improvements to boiler rooms, windows, and attics. President Clinton should be awarded a new sweater - make it a cardigan - for providing that leadership.