WASHINGTON — In a turnaround from the Ronald Reagan years, the Bush Administration announced Friday what it called a major energy conservation initiative that emphasizes searching for alternative fuels--solar power, ethanol and hydropower--while offering symbolic gestures, such as reducing lighting needs in federal buildings.
"This is the first major conservation initiative in the Bush Administration and maybe in a decade," Deputy Energy Department Secretary W. Henson Moore said of the six-year, $336-million program.
The plan, which Moore said "goes into effect today" and will be financed this year by $30 million shifted from other department programs, met with guarded approval by environmental and conservation groups.
"Overall, we're encouraged by what we're hearing. They are saying a lot of the right things," said Mark Ledbetter, a senior associate at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
The approach represents a marked reversal from the Reagan Administration, during which federal support for conservation and renewal energy sources withered.
The initiative includes programs intended to reduce the cost of ethanol production, to encourage ways of using concentrated solar energy to break down toxic wastes and to search for effective ways to convert more municipal waste into energy.
Moore said that if the different programs were successful, annual reductions of 800 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions, a gas contributing to the "greenhouse effect," and 2.3 million tons in sulfur dioxide, an acid rain pollutant, could be reached. The reductions would be roughly 20% of what is called for in the President's Clean Air Act amendments, according to the Energy Department.
The initiative also is allocating $19.6 million to construct a laboratory at the government's Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colo., to be devoted to research in solar-electric and solar-heat technologies.
Under the initiative, the DOE also will attempt to "define the developable (hydropower) capacity" at existing dam sites throughout the country. Moore acknowledged that environmental concerns have significantly stifled hydropower development, which he called "the most proven and developed of all" renewable sources of energy.
By the year 2000, Moore said, the initiative "could produce cumulative savings of up to $32 billion, from an investment of $336 million. That's a return of almost 100 to 1."
But Ledbetter questioned the claim of that "phenomenal" return. "It makes me a little suspicious," he said.
For months, senior DOE officials have been promoting the conservation initiative as a major prelude to the development of a long-term "national energy strategy." Ordered last July by President Bush, the strategy is intended to ensure that the country will have adequate supplies of clean, competitively priced energy well into the next century.
Since then, Energy Secretary James D. Watkins has been holding public hearings around the country, often with other senior Cabinet officials presiding as co-hosts, in an attempt to forge a national consensus.