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The Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)

They Paved Paradise and Put Up... A Power Source

Nicole Orne

BRATTLEBORO -- The secret to saving the world could be hidden in the miles and miles of parking lot in the United States, Dr. Arjun Makhijani said Saturday.Makhijani addressed roughly 65 people at the annual membership meeting for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.0318 06

The author of "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy" and a recognized authority on energy issues, Makhijani repeatedly referred to himself as a "poor Indian boy" and a "ham" during his speech Saturday.

Makhijani is also the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. He earned his Ph.D. in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972, specializing in nuclear fusion.

Makhijani spoke about a number of energy alternatives to nuclear power. One of what he calls the "bumper stickers" in his book is that "parking lots are the answer."

By this he meant that, given the sheer mass of parking lot space in the U.S., it would be an ideal situation to put canopies with solar paneling over as many as possible, providing a lot of energy as well as shade for motorists. "They like it in Texas, it's hot there," he

Makhijani told story after story Saturday, most of which caused nods and murmurs of assent from the audience, which was made up of a number of people who were by no means new to the discussion of nuclear power. One woman sat quietly in her seat, wearing a hand-colored shirt demanding the close of Vermont Yankee.

Makhijani believes the nation can eliminate its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and can do it without relying on nuclear power.

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.

He has set out 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.


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* Ban new coal-fired plants unless they include reliable carbon capture and storage.

* Create and enforce stringent efficiency standards for appliances, transportation and buildings.

"If we do everything right," he said Saturday, "we can get rid of carbon dioxide in 30 to 50 years."

While he was preaching to the choir somewhat, Makhijani presented a number of ideas he admitted they may not all agree with.

"We are in deep trouble," he said, if we don't cut down our carbon dioxide emissions. "The planet is in intensive care. What do you do when you're in intensive care with cancer? You do toxic things to your body to get rid of it. If you want to survive, you have to do some nasty things."

This related to many people's concerns about the aesthetics of wind turbines, he said. "If you want to look at electricity, do that. Don't worry about the view. This argument needs to be settled. We have to get tough. We don't have a lot of time."

Makhijani said he did not agree with alternative fuel sources such as wheat or corn. "By turning food to fuel and fuel into food ... how stupid are we?"

He worried that the world has not yet weighed the effect of these sources. "We don't know the net of Brazilian ethanol, poor residents getting pushed out."

Another bumper sticker, he said, is that "Weeds are the answer."

"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.

He also disagreed with the idea of carbon offsets. "I'm against you salving your conscience by paying somebody to plant a tree," he said. "I was surprised to come to the conclusion that we can actually get rid of it all without all this funny money."

The idea of virtue played a big role in his discussion Saturday. "I assume that the number of virtuous people in the United States will not change. We don't have time to convince everyone to be virtuous. If you want to do that, we're going to fail."

He told the group that the public needed to lead this movement. "We need the leadership of the people. The wind is you, just remember that. You have to create that political wind so politicians feel it."

Nicole Orne can be reached at

© 2008 The Reformer

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