The sun has not always shone on the Anacostia area of Southeast Washington. Viewed as almost separate from the District of Columbia, Anacostia watched during much of the 1970s as other areas received grants and became subjects for funding experiments in urban renewal.

Some programs did start in the mid-1970s, including the Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. (NHS), a coalition of residents and representatives of financial institutions, business, industry and the D.C. government that sought to reverse a housing decline in the working-class neighborhood.

Now, with NHS having found four appropriate homes, the Anacostia Energy Alliance (AEA) soon will be able to point out local residences that not only get sunshine, but use it.

The use of this sunshine at four houses will come about through retrofitting back porches with solar panels and turning the areas into "sunspaces" -- areas that retain heat which then passes through the wall to the rest of the house.

The houses -- at 1307 S St. SE, 62 V St. SE, 807 Alabama Ave. SE, and 28 V St SE -- will receive the fruits of five months of work, two months of physical labor and $17,000 in federal grants when retrofitting is completed later this month. The result could be a 20 percent reduction in the amount of energy needed to heat each house.

Among the owners are the Rev. Horace Abney, and Children's Hospital employe Vivian Ellis.

The project is one of 28 nationwide funded through the Solar Action Program, using technology that has existed for a number of years: The solar collectors can be built by individual homeowners and the so-called "sunspace" is actually a solar collector retrofitted to a porch.

Ideally, a 4-by-8-foot solar panel would be fitted into the open space on a porch facing south. The house should be made of brick, which serves as a large and effective thermal mass, and the east and west sides of the porch would be closed off and insulated to R-19 (about six inches of fiberglass insulation) with the ceiling insulated to R-30 (10 inches).

The energy savings result from the heat that goes through the back wall and the ceiling (if a room is above the ceiling) to the rooms beyond, along with the natural insulation provided by closing off the porch.

"If you're any kind of a do-it-yourselfer at all, you can make one of these.

They're really quite simple," said Janet Brown of the Center for Community Resources. The center, along with the American division of the International Solar Energy Society, funded the AEA project with grants from the Department of Energy.

The solar collector is made from double-walled, vented acrylic, glazed to keep light rays passing through it from passing back out, ribbed every 1/2 to 1 inch for resistance to damage when struck by heavy objects like tree branches. The materials can cost as little as $400, but assorted safety and fire regulations can multiply that cost several times.

District regulations requiring among other things, that the sunspaces in brick town houses be reinforced with steel I-beams and columns can boost the cost by over $1,200. (To assist people considering constructing a "sunspace" to meet local building codes, the energy alliance will publish "The D.C. Sunspace Handbook" within the next three weeks.)

Regulations vary according to house type. Clarence Murray of the alliance, said wood-frame houses can use wood materials for reinforcement, thus reducing the total cost. However, a wooden wall does not collect and store heat as well as a brick one, so a homeowner would have to boost the collection capabilities by placing water-filled drums or sand-filled blocks between the wall and the solar collector.

Such a wall could boost the energy savings in a wooden house to the same level as that in one made of brick. But as Hal Mansfield of the solar energy society points out, the savings can vary widely, depending on the size and shape of the house.

"Savings all depend on what the total energy load is," he said. "If you have a small town house with a massive greenhouse, you could reduce energy consumption by 90 percent. In opposite circumstances, in a colder climate than Washington's, the savings could be well under 10 percent."

Mansfield goes on to point out that such passive collectors tend to show a relatively quick return on investment because they "are relatively cheap to build, work well and rarely need repairs."

However, one financial aspect of the "sunspaces" is somewhat muddy. Various tax credits are available for home investment in energy-conserving devices, but whether or not the Anacostia homes qualify for such credits is, as Mansfield puts it, "a matter of semantics."

"If you call these devices greenhouses or passive solar collectors, you can't take a tax credit," Mansfield said. "But if it's called or considered something else, then a tax credit may be possible."

The Anacostia project's director, Vince Kosker, choosing a more liberal interpretation, said: "These are solar furnaces as much as anything. I think they would usually qualify for the [energy tax] credit." CAPTION: Picture 1, This home on S Street SE is one of four in Anacostia being retrofitted to use the back porch as a solar heat collector. The federal government is providing $17,000 to convert the houses, which could have heating energy needs reduced by 20 percent.; Picture 2, Vince Kosker shows a solar window device to Clarence Murray, Anacostia Energy Alliance chairman, and James Ellis, 10. Photos by Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post