Research on ways to harness the wind's energy may be more productive in the long run than any kind of solar energy effort, according to a draft study now under review at the Department of Energy.
The report for the solar working group, which advises the administration on funding directions, is likely to upset boosters of increased government aid for developing solar heating and cooling systems. It downplays the value of spending money on increased research in that direction on grounds that solar heating technology is already commercial.
"We suggested that biomass (energy from plants) and wind are better investments since solar heat's obstacles are really institutional," said Mark Levine, who worked on the study at Stanford Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif.
Wind is considered a form of solar energy since it is the result of shifts among differently heated air masses. Investment in producing electricity from wind would reap benefits in short, medium and long-term cases "because of its potential energy contribution, because it conserves oil and gas and because its economic are relatively certain," the report said.
Solar heating and cooling will continue to benefit from research funding in the heat term (through 1985) but will be overtaken in productivity by wind and biomass between 1985 and 2000, and by solar electric cell (photo-voltaic) study around the year 2020, the study predicted.
The solar working group will make recommendations "pretty much based on this analysis" that are likely to determine the federal emphasisi placed on each of the fiercely competitive aspects of the solar energy field, according to Bill Woodard, DOE's liaison officer to the group.
The results might include a reduction in the high-cost demonstration projects that DOE has favored in its solar research program. The study said such projects had resulted partly from "strong public and political pressures," which it did not identify, and added that they might delay the development of more economical equipment and technology.
Standford research evaluated seven solar technologists in a complex series of benefit and cost rankings, and found that solar heating, wind and biomass research would be most beneficial in terms of gaining a share of the market through the turn of the century, with wind edging out solar heat in the long term.
Technology for wind energy was reported to have boiled down to three major types, all most economical if they are relatively large and located in very windy areas. Windmills of two or three blades on a horizontal axis "can produce electricity at a cost sufficiently lower than fuel oil so as to pay for the investment in about 10 years," the study said. They may be more economical as oil costs rise, the report added.
The other windmills are the "egg beater" vertical axis style and a curved-plate blade style, both of which are promising but have structural problems, the researchers found. The main objection to windmills might be esthetic, the report said, since they would normally be located on hilltops and other potentially scenic areas.
Solar cell research and the study of biomass fuel's such as alcohol were recommended for additional research and development funding. Aid to research in producing electrical energy from the heat of the sun is sufficient at the moment to get the best results, as is aid to study conversion of ocean thermal currents into electricity, the report continued.
It said funding was also adequate in the field of recovering heat from agricultural and industrial processes to use in electricity production, although it might be better to reduce the number of demonstration projects and use the money to increase efficiency of materials used.
Funding for wind power research could concentrate on improving site selection criteria, promoting demonstration projects and helping private industry in its design and materials research.
"The federal role is important because the allied industries are not now developed, although there are many potential hardware suppliers and customers," the report said.