Along Ocean View Lane, from which the view of the Atlantic sparkles with the blue waters and bluer sky of Block Island sound, those looking inland can enjoy scenery of a different but still stirring beauty. On the roof of the corner home of Jim Byrne, a retired insurance man, are two solar collector plates.
They are modest in design and purpose. Ten feet by five feet, their heat absorption pipes lead into the house to a water tank that uses the stored energy when needed.
What's beautiful about this solar device is not only that it is one of many in this remote village and, nationally, one of about 350,000 currently on American homes, but that Jim Byrne is in his 80s. He is an old-timer who has rejected the tired old wasteful ways of the oil conglomerates and their one- note opposition to renewable energy like solar. Instead, in his 80s, Byrne is going with the future.
Much of the rest of the country appears ready to join him. A Gallup Poll last year reported that solar development was the choice of 31 percent of the public to meet the country's energy needs. Oil and natural gas were the preferred options of only 14 percent, and nuclear power sputtered in last with 8 percent.
Warmed by the sunlight in this popular support, Congress last year raised the residential solar tax credit from 15 to 40 percent. In many states, further credits have been enacted. Offering leadership that was unappreciated at the time, Jimmy Carter announced in a 1979 presidential message--the first ever on solar energy--a national goal of using solar and renewable resources for 20 percent of the nation's energy needs by 2000. The new federal Solar Energy Research Institute had a budget of $100 million and a director, Denis Hayes, who was both a sophisticated scientist and a seasoned advocate.
With this kind of support and attention, solarists had reason to bask a bit. But no sooner had this sunny day begun than the Reagan administration charged in with plans for a partial eclipse--and in many places a total one.
It wanted to eliminate the Solar Energy and Energy Conservation Bank, one of the main parts of the Carter solar program. The bank was to have provided $1 billion worth of subsidies through 1984 to builders and owners of both residential and commercial structures.The administration has yet to kill the bank. Its fate is now in the hands of House and Senate appropriations committees that are about to decide whether to give it $150 million for the next three years. The Solar Lobby, a Washington group, says the bank "is the only federal program to help lower-middle income people in making energy conservation improvements to their homes."
Failing to break the bank, in June the administration fired Denis Hayes and cut the institute's staff from 850 to 580. On his last day, Hayes served the nation well with his candor: "The shifts in the energy budget have been described by administration spokesmen as pure exercises to trim the federal budget. That is a manifest lie." If saving money were the goal, Hayes said, "the nuclear budget would not be increased by 36 percent while the solar budget was slashed 67 percent."
From the evidence, it is hard not to agree with Hayes that this administration "has declared open war on solar energy." If there is any comfort to be taken it is that this will be a war that the president's energy generals can win only in their sunless strategy rooms. They argue, with free enterprise slogans, that the future of solar should be decided in the marketplace: as oil prices rise, consumers will go to the solar equipment companies that provide savings in energy. Solar must compete on its own, without subsidies from energy banks.
This is a tidy theory, except that citizens and businesses are so burdened paying this month's gas and electric bills that they have little or nothing left over for the high capital outlay needed for solar. "You could charge $100 a barrel for oil," said Suzette Tapper of the Solar Lobby, "and that only makes people less able to afford solar." The theory also overlooks the immense sums the government provides to subsidize conventional fuels--one study puts the figure minimally at $220 billion from 1923 to 1978. This is free-ride enterprise.
As solar energy becomes politicized, perhaps President Reagan should climb the roof of the White House. A solar hot water system, like the one on Jim Byrne's house in Quonochontaug, was installed there two years ago. Last week, a White House official said it was working just fine.