In fact, said Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., the nation can eliminate its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and can do it without relying on nuclear power.
The transition to carbon-free technology can also give a boost to the economy of the country, he said.
"These approaches are all technologically feasible, economically viable and environmentally benign," said Makhijani. "Nuclear power, on the other hand, entails risks of proliferation, terrorism and serious accidents."
Makhijani said there are six steps the United States needs to take to make carbon-free energy a reality: Enact a physical limit on carbon dioxide emissions -- also called a hard cap -- for large users of fossil fuels that steadily declines to zero; eliminate all subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels, nuclear power and biofuels from food crops; build demonstration energy supply plants including solar thermal, solar photovoltaic and carbon dioxide capture in microalgae for liquid fuel production; leverage government purchasing power to create markets for advanced technologies such as plug-in hybrid vehicles; ban new coal-fired plants unless they include reliable carbon capture and storage; and create and
The steps are described in more detail in Makhijani's "Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy," published by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
Despite claims to the contrary, a reliable electricity grid can be created entirely from renewable energy sources, said Makhijani, despite the intermittency of wind and solar energy.
"Intermittent doesn't mean unpredictable," he said. "We know when the sun shines and we have a pretty good idea when the wind blows."
Wind and solar need to be coordinated, he said, since wind is typically more consistent at night and solar collection, obviously, is only feasible during the daylight hours.
"Hydropower resources can be used when neither is available, complemented by natural gas standby," he wrote in his report.
One argument in favor of nuclear power is its ability to provide baseload capacity -- power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But Makhijani said power coming from biomass and geothermal resources and solar thermal power plants with heat storage complemented by battery storage can provide that baseload.
It won't be an easy transition, he said, but with a little bit of planning, the United States can do it in less than 50 years.
"You have to get from here to a completely renewable economy in a very organized fashion," he said, adding humanity went from horse and buggy to nuclear power in a "willy nilly" fashion.
Technology in renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, he said, and instead of spending money subsidizing nuclear power, the federal government should plow investments into wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and biofuel research and development.
Makhijani also shot down the argument that the carbon footprint involved in the production of wind turbines and photovoltaics make them an unviable alternative to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"The argument that renewable sources have a lot of carbon dioxide emissions is factually incorrect," he said. "When you go to an all-renewable economy, the carbon dioxide emissions go away."
The production of wind turbines and photovoltaics have a high carbon footprint only because we are in a fossil-fuel based economy, said Makhijani. Take the fossil fuels out of the equation and solar, wind and nuclear power have no carbon footprint.
In North Dakota alone, wind power could eliminate the need for every single nuclear power plant in the United States, he said. That would use up much of the land space in North Dakota, he said, but wind farms in the Dakotas, Texas, Kansas, Montana and Nebraska, taking up 800 to 1,000 square miles, would provide the power necessary to shut down those reactors.
And, he reminded, even though it seems like a lot of space, it's not nearly as much area as is required for coal mining or in the zone around a nuclear power plant.
"You can farm right up to the windmill," he said.
While solar power is expensive, Makhijani expects the cost to go down in the next few years. Current technology makes it quite expensive for existing homes, but other locations are ideal, he said.
"Parking lots are the answer," said Makhijani, pointing to companies that are producing electricity with photovoltaics installed on the roofs of awnings that cover their parking lots.
If the country utilized many of its parking lots in this manner, it would produce enough power for the whole nation while taking advantage of what is now an eyesore.
The rooftops of big commercial buildings are also ideal spots for photovoltaics, he said.
In Vermont, solar radiation produces 4 to 5 kilowatt hours per square meter per day, of which 10 to 15 percent can be used to produce energy. Some areas of the country, such as in the Southwest, the sun shines 6 to 9 kilowatt hours per square meter a day.
Makhijani warned that the benefits of biofuels depend on what kind of crop is harvested.
"Aquatic weeds are the answer," he said. Not only are they prolific, they clean waste water and don't need fertilizers. By using those weeds to produce biofuels, the nation won't have to use its food crops.
Depending on crops such as corn only drives up the cost of food, creating social, economic and environmental harm, he said, and requires fuel and fertilizers to produce.
Microalgae can also be used, both to reduce carbon dioxide and to produce energy, said Makhijani.
"Microalgae have been demonstrated to capture over 80 percent of the daytime carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and can be used to produce up to 10,000 gallons of liquid fuel per acre per year," wrote Makhijani.
Makhijani's report is the result of a joint project of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research was founded in 1987, with a focus on ozone layer depletion, energy-related climate issues and the environmental and security aspects of nuclear weapons production and nuclear technology.
Makhijani holds a Ph.D. from the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of California at Berkeley, where he specialized in nuclear fusion.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.