The Reagan administration's hopes and plans for solar energy diverge startlingly from those of the public--and from those of forward- looking foreign governments. In this country, public support for solar energy continues to be so strong that political consultants advise their clients to sponsor a solar bill as a sure way of winning constituent favor. But in the White House and the Department of Energy, it is unaccountably ignored, even sneered at.
In the years between 1975 and 1980, sales of active and passive solar systems and photovoltaics achieved a 155 percent annual average increase. With the number of passive solar homes at about 70,000 today, it is hard to remember that just five years ago they hardly existed. Technology has improved, too. Making electricity from the sun costs about half of what it did five years ago, though it is still a long way from being competitive with commercial electricity.
Despite that record, and despite independent studies concluding that solar technologies could soon meet a substantial portion of the country's energy needs, the Reagan administration in its two budgets has proposed cutting federal solar programs by 88 percent. Some of the cuts were justified. These programs had grown too fast. But they needed selective trimming, not wholesale elimination. The administration has tried to kill programs for consumer education and information (essential to a properly functioning free market) and research (the only national laboratory devoted to solar and conservation research lost 300 of its 800 employees), development and commercialization. Many of the cuts were rejected by Congress.
The president calls solar energy "exotic," by which he apparently means either that it is not widely applicable or that it is excessively sophisticated. Neither formulation is correct. France, Japan, West Germany and others are accelerating their solar research and are threatening to erase the large technological edge the United States enjoyed a few years ago. The Japanese bought eight times as many solar water heaters in 1980 as Americans did, and several companies already plan to begin exports to the United States.
Solar energy will eventually make it on its own, but years or perhaps decades later than it could have. Solar fuel is free, and many dollars that could have been productively invested elsewhere will have been lost. Jobs and export opportunities will be gone. And do you really want your house heated by Mitsubishi?