Renewable energy article in DC Post


Government Researchers Fear Budget Cuts Will Cool Solar Energy Work

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 25 1996; Page A03
The Washington Post

GOLDEN, Colo. -- A small cadre of U.S. government researchers, laboring in this unlikely Denver suburb, is doing its part to bring solar power to the third of the globe that goes without electricity.

Although their annual budget is less than what the Pentagon spends in a day, employees of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are contributing to steady progress toward that goal. In the last five years, U.S. companies, assisted by the laboratory's specialists, have increased their annual exports of solar technology from about $100 million to $300 million, much of it to developing countries where electric power is scarce.

Few would argue that the nation's scrappy solar industry could have achieved such growth without the help of NREL. Specialists at the Energy Department facility have worked closely with solar companies nationwide to assure that U.S. solar technology is state-of-the-art and competitive with products being developed in Japan and other countries.

Although the cost of producing electricity from solar energy is declining, it is still more expensive than using natural gas, coal or other conventional means, and thus is not considered economical enough for large-scale use in the United States. NREL researchers are nonetheless exploring innovative domestic uses for solar energy, such as solar-powered technology to combat air and water pollution.

Government officials call this a case where federal investments in research and development have paid off. In the past 20 years, the United States has spent about $1.4 billion, including $85 million in fiscal 1996, on developing solar power and photovoltaics, the semiconductor technology used to convert solar energy to electricity. Aided by that investment, U.S. companies now capture 44 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion in annual sales of solar products worldwide. Japan and the European Union, the two closet competitors, claim 22 percent and 26 percent of the market= respectively.

"Clearly, we've already gotten more out of our investment than we've put in," said Christine Ervin, assistant secretary for renewable energy sources at the Energy Department. With the solar market predicted to more than double in the next four years, there is potential for an even bigger payoff, other department officials said.

Yet, in the last two years, Congress has questioned the wisdom of the investment. In 1995, a GOP-led campaign to trim the federal budget slashed the 1996 budget for NREL, including funding for solar and other photovoltaics projects, from $237 million to $167 million. A General Accounting Office report issued last April acknowledged the success of the photovoltaics industry but raised doubts about whether federal funding for renewable energy sources has yielded as big a payoff as was reported, prompting a push last summer for additional budget cuts. Proponents of the cuts, led by Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) argued that corporations are collecting too many federal funds and should assume more of the financial burden for research.

In an interview, Walker, who chairs the House Science Committee, said he is not flatly opposed to all federal funding for research on renewable energy sources. "But in many cases there are companies which acknowledge that they use federal funding to produce projects they have known how to produce for years and that they would not produce without federal aid," he said. "In my view, that's not R That's corporate welfare, and that's what we don't need."

According to Ervin, the would-be budget-cutters are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. "Renewables, including solar, are a big growth industry where U.S. companies are leading and can only stay ahead with long-term development strategies," she said. "But they do not have the resources for long-term investments. Federal assistance, usually in the form of partnerships, is essential."

Solar industry executives echo that view. "We have made considerable investments in solar and will continue to make them," said Harvey Forest, president of Solarex, the nation's second-largest solar company, based in Frederick, Md. "But partnerships with federal research are very helpful. It's unfortunate that just as Congress is trying to reduce R&D funding for the industry, the Japanese government is increasing its investments in solar. If the trend keeps going in this direction, we're bound to lose our leadership of the industry."

Apparently unconvinced by such arguments, Congress approved a slight decrease in funding for research and development in solar and other renewables for fiscal 1997, to $269 million a year. (The Pentagon budget, by comparison, is $256.6 billion for 1997.)

By the year 2000, the United States is aiming to double its sales of solar products, according to a joint initiative between the Energy Department and the nation's major electric utilities. Much of that increase will be composed of exports to developing countries, where an estimated 2 billion people, about a third of the population of the globe, have no electricity at home, according to United Nations estimates. India, Brazil, Indonesia and Kenya are considered the biggest potential export markets. The lack of an electric transmission grid in many areas of these countries makes solar power more cost-effective than alternative sources.

NREL, a collection of brick office buildings spread across several hundred acres in suburban Denver, is dedicated to helping U.S. industry produce renewable energy resources, including wind and solar power. For product development and testing, NREL experts frequently team up with specialists from the U.S. solar industry, which is composed of companies from Solarex to Siemens Solar, a subsidiary of the German giant, in California.

"For companies like ours, NREL has two key functions," said Solarex president Forest. "They do support various projects that we and other companies do in a partnership arrangement. They also test products and equipment to make sure that they are of the highest standard."

But NREL's other role, as an independent screening agent for product quality, may be even more essential, Forest said. Particularly for a young industry such as solar, it's crucial to have an outside body perform quality control on new innovations or inventions, he explained.

Working closely with private solar companies, the researchers and administrators at NREL are trying to develop competitive technologies to market at home and abroad. One example of a potentially major product under development for export is a dark, paper-thin sheet of photovoltaic panels that can fit in a window and collect sunlight. Made from semiconductor materials, it converts light to electricity.

Another product under development is a sheet of shingles covered with photovoltaic cells that can be used for roofing. Easily transportable, the shingles can be strapped across the top of a hut, providing an instant source of electricity.

Solar power is still at least four times as expensive as alternative energy sources. A modern solar-powered generator costs about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to run, compared with 4 cents per kilowatt-hour for a natural-gas-fired plant, and 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt-hour for a wind-powered facility, according to Energy Department figures.

Such comparatively high costs have kept the solar industry relatively small. Total U.S. solar production last year was just 35 megawatts, only enough to provide power to a community the size of Silver Spring, Md. Worldwide production was just over twice that amount.

In an attempt to enhance the marketability of solar power at home and abroad, the Energy Department and Southern California Edison developed a new power plant that uses molten salt to store solar power. The $189 million Solar Two experimental facility in Daggett, Calif., draws sunlight from nearly 2,000 mirrored panels. The sunlight heats the salt, which flows into a storage tank, where it can be held to heat water in a steam generator to power turbines. The plant, opened last summer, was designed to respond to problems with storing the energy that is collected from solar technology.

Researchers at NREL have also developed photocatalytic oxidation, a process by which chemical pollutants are combined with a chemical compound and exposed to ultraviolet light. The process breaks down pollutants in air and water to harmless constituent, such as carbon dioxide.

Faced with further budget cuts, NREL officials are worried about whether they will continue to have the staff and facilities to develop such innovations. Last year's large cut forced the research center to reduce its staff from 1,000 to about 700. "Any more budget reductions and we will not be able to fulfill our mission," said Charles Gay, manager of the solar programs at the plant.


The United States is the No. 1 producer of solar energy . . .

Photovoltaic production, 1995

U.S.: 44%

Japan: 25%

Germany: 23%

Others: 8%

. . . which can be cheaper than traditional energy sources . . .

. . . but growth in U.S. solar capacity may slow compared to the world as a whole.

SOURCES: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Solar Energy Industries Association, PV News

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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