Lawrence Levy is paid $75,000 of federal money a year to make the sun shine benignly on New England.
He is not, in the technical sense, a "federal offical." But he is outranked in the federal salary hierarchy only by President Carter, who gets $200,000.
Levy's pay in on a par with Vice President Mondale's and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's, but he is $9,000 ahead of Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr., who turns out to be Levy's boss.
Levy is director of the Northeast Solar Energy Center, an organization in Cambridge, Mass., financed entirely by the Department of Energy to push solar power onto the commercial market in nine northeastern states.
And when Levy needs a contact in Washington or some information on Capitol Hill, he turns to the consulting firm of Patrick D'Addario and Joel Stromberg, whose $6,000-per-month retainer is paid from the DOE money that operates the center.
The jobs, the money, the four regional centers and a national solar research institute at Golden, Colo., are the results of one of those typically happy American coalitions; a crisis, an idea, some politics.
In the rush to find solutions to the nation's energy problems, Congress has poured millions of dollars into DOE programs to stimulate industries and individuals to take advantage of the sun's rays.
Solar power can heat water, warm and cool buildings and produce electricity. Getting the technology developed and on the market, making it economical and winning public acceptance are the problems.
As congressional committees move the Department of Energy authorization bills for fiscal 1980, the regional solar centers have become controversial.
One side says that, without the centers and the relative independence they have from DOE, solar energy's potential won't be realized.
Critics say the centers duplicate other DOE efforts, suffer from insufficient government control and are on their way to becoming little political fiefdoms.
The Senate Energy Committee, acting on an amendment by Sens. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), last month increased the four centers' authorization by $8 million.
Tsongas argued that the current funding of about $14 million, divided among the regions, is not much more than a drop in the bucket for pushing solar energy.
On the House side, however, a sub-committee chaired by Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.) reduced the centers' authorization by $8 million.
Differences most likely will be worked out later by a conference committee. DOE, meanwhile, has come up with new guidelines and rules to keep closer tabs on operations of the four regional centers.
The new rules, including more justification of high salaries, were written because of a "looseness" in the centers and uncertainty about what they are doing and how, a DOE official said. The looseness is such that DOE headquarters did not know how much Levy is paid.
DOE's after-the-fact approach stems in part from the way the centers were created in 1977, in the political fallout from the controversy over location of the national institute.
Tsongas, then a member of the House, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Levy, working as a consultant, pushed hard to get the congressionally created Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) put in Massachesetts.
Massachusetts lost the fight, however. DOE's predecessor, the Energy Research and Development Administration, in 1977 decided to put SERI in Golden, Colo.
But to placate O'Neill, Tsongas and other legislators, ERDA decided to create four regional centers. The Golden center would handle solar research and development. The regionals would help commercialize it and stimulate public interest.
And Massachusetts, of course, got a regional center. Others were sited in Minneapolis, Atlanta and Portland, ore., operating not as arms of DOE but as contractors and grantees.
The Northeast center, for example, has worked on a contract basis. This procedure gives it an independence it would not have were it a branch of DOE. It sets its won salary levels and does its own hiring and firing, functioning more as a corporation than an arm of government.
This, too, has had another spinoff. D'Addario, who had been on Tsongas' House staff, and Stromberg, who had been an ERDA official, set up a consulting business here.
The Northeast center and the Mid-American center in Minneapolis put them on retainers to help with Washington contracts. Each center pays about $6,000 per month to the consulting team, D'Addario said.
Levy, for one, says he thinks that while the centers have taken on "a political aura," it misses the point of what he and other solar proponents are trying to do.
"If we are going to commercialize any energy alternatives, the regional approach must be taken," he said. "You have to be in the region, you have to have contacts. Our job is to act as a stimulator - a marriage broker - and it is not easy.
"We have to rekindle innovation, invention and entreprenuership. It's easier to do that on a regional basis than trying to direct it out of Washington," he said.
"There's no reason we can't have 25 to 30 percent of our energy from solar by the year 2000. But the big problem is that nobody has set any goals for the solar program, and Congress is grappling with that now."
Levy draws an analogy. "If we had fought World War II like we're fighting the energy war, we'd all be speaking Japanese and Germen . . . The amount we spend on solar is like putting foot braces on a guy and asking why he can't disco."