Three years after it was set up with a $15 billion endowment, the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corp. finally started handing out money yesterday, awarding a $120 million price guarantee to a consortium of America's largest companies that is building a small California power plant to be fired by synthetic gas.

"We have kind of passed a milestone today," said Chairman Edward E. Noble in announcing the award to the Cool Water Coal Gasification project, located in the California desert halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The sponsors of the project--which include Texaco Inc., General Electric Co., Bechtel Power Corp. and Southern California Edison Co.--plan to build a facility that will covert coal into 750 million BTUs per hour of synthetic gas that will be used to operate a 100-megawatt power plant.

Four other power generating facilities--two 236-megawatt oil-fired plants and two smaller plants that use either oil or natural gas--already are located at the site at Daggett, Calif., 12 miles from Barstow.

After the announcement of the initial award, Ralph Bayrer, vice president for projects, said the Synthetic Fuels Corp. still expects to make financial commitments to "as many as 20" oil shale, heavy oil and tar sands projects by the end of the year, "and maybe a coal project or two as well."

Bayrer said that, by the middle of next year, the corporation hopes to have concluded the initial job it was set up to do by "obligating $13.6 billion" to encourage companies to build synthetic fuels plants.

He said that although he anticipated "at least one major project" in the oil shale area, the other projects to be funded by the corporation probably will be smaller.

Bayrer indicated, however, that the corporation probably will not be able to assist the Great Plains Coal Gasification plant, the nation's largest synthetic fuels project in North Dakota, which currently is seeking additional federal subsidies beyond the $2.02 billion already committed by the Energy Department.