Concerns Over Plans To Construct an Experiment Test Area and Laboratory Building for the Solar Energy Research Institute

EMD-82-57: Published: Mar 11, 1982. Publicly Released: Mar 11, 1982.

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GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to establish a permanent facility for the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). Of particular concern is whether the SERI test area and laboratory construction will be fully utilized in the years following construction, particularly in light of the uncertainties regarding the future of Federal solar energy programs brought on by recent declining budgets.

GAO found that the SERI began operations in leased office buildings which were not laboratories and which limited the ability of the SERI to fulfill its objectives. Many costly modifications would be needed to use the buildings as laboratories; therefore, DOE supported the construction of a permanent facility for the SERI. GAO obtained the justification for the construction and discussed it with DOE officials responsible for administering the activities scheduled for the test area and laboratory building. The justification indicates that the test area is to prove capabilities for operating and testing full-size solar systems under actual outdoor conditions. The laboratory building is to house specialized research equipment and facilities for experiments. The justification for the laboratory building shows that initially it will be used for research in alcohol fuels and biomass work. However, the facility will be sufficiently flexible to accommodate other solar research programs should program needs change. GAO questions the decision to construct the experiment test area and laboratory building because of the current uncertainties surrounding the future of Federal solar energy programs and the future of alcohol and biomass activities. Based on budget declines, the Federal commitment to solar energy research is waning. DOE has decided to proceed with plans to construct the facility in the face of these uncertainties, and GAO is concerned whether future funding will be sufficient to support DOE objectives.

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