Brazil has sugar cane. Denmark has wind. Morocco has sunshine. China has plans. And America has politics and indecision… But it doesn’t have to be that way.

POWERING THE PLANET is an eye-opening look at some of the world’s most important case studies in smart energy decisions, and a provocative assessment of what it takes to build a sustainable energy infrastructure — a process that spans decades and requires long-term government support.


In Spain and Morocco, large-scale solar farms and individual photovoltaic panels atop tents in the Sahara are beginning to bring the vast potential of the Sun down to Earth. In Brazil, abundant natural resources — Sun, rain and sugar cane — are transformed into efficient, sustainable biofuel, making Brazil the only nation whose cars could keep running if all gasoline were to vanish. In Samsø, Denmark, and West Texas, citizens have taken sustainability — and economic realities — into their own hands by becoming stakeholders in wind turbines; instead of NIMBY, for them it’s “Yes, in my backyard.” In China, the “new empire of clean tech,” we witness a fast-paced, full-throttle approach to multiple sustainable energy technologies, including exclusive footage from GreenGen, the world’s most advanced low-carbon emissions power generation plant.

In a dramatic illustration of the need to cut emissions worldwide and avoid the possibility of an abrupt climate shift, host Richard Alley bungy-jumps off a bridge – and his CGI avatar goes for a wild ride on the “climate roller coaster” to illustrate how precipitously climate can shift when it reaches a “tipping point.” Later, Alley walks us through Edinburgh, Scotland, to address a common concern about renewables — cost — by relating the transition to a cleaner energy system to the revolution in sanitation and public health. It took about one percent of the world economy to develop the modern infrastructure of clean water and indoor plumbing; that’s roughly what will be required to get rid of “another kind of human waste” — carbon dioxide emissions from burning fuels.

But cost is only one factor, in addition to politics and psychology. The last two segments of the program look at dysfunctional energy choices made by the U.S. government juxtaposed with successful local initiatives in Alaska, Baltimore and Kansas. In the words of former head of Shell U.S.A. John Hofmeister, “You need to think of energy in a fifty-year timeframe, and our elected officials are thinking of energy in two-year election cycles. That’s ridiculous.”

Showcasing many ways in which great nations and small communities are finding sustainable solutions that both provide energy for people and protect the Earth, POWERING THE PLANET asks an urgent question: is America is making the right decisions for its own energy future?


Video Segments

Watch individual video segments from Powering The Planet, then LIKE, TWEET, and SHARE them with your friends. See all Segments


Host Richard Alley and a diverse roster of inspiring Earth "operators" from all over the world are proving it's possible to do things differently.

Meet the cast

Richard Alley, Program host Richard Alley is a Professor of Geosciences at the Penn State University, winner of the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He once worked for an oil company, is a contributor to the UN panel on climate change (the IPCC), has testified to Congress about climate change, and served as a “tour guide” to Senators visiting the glaciers of Greenland. As he says about himself during the program: “I’m a registered Republican, play soccer on Saturdays, and go to church on Sundays. I’m a parent and a professor. I worry about jobs for my students and my daughters’ future.” Alley is the author of the companion book to the special, published by W. W. Norton & Company.

Carlos de Brito Cruz, Science Director of the Research Foundation of Sao Paulo. “If for some magical reason every molecule of gasoline in the world would disappear, I guess that the only country that would keep its cars running normally would be Brazil.”

Jose Goldemberg, former Minister of the Environment, Brazil, who was present at the beginning of the push for sugar cane ethanol in that country. Dr. Goldemberg was a TIME Hero of the Environment.

Soren Hermansen, director of the Samsø Energy Academy, Denmark, and a native of Samsø. He played a major role in the island’s transition away from dependence on fossil fuels by convincing his neighbors to become early adopters of wind energy.

Lykke Friis, former Minister of Climate and Energy, Denmark. “As a global perspective, we simply know that the age of cheap energy is over.”

Cliff Etheredge, farmer and wind energy entrepreneur, Roscoe, Texas.

Julio Friedman, Carbon Management Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

Xu Shisen, director of the TPRI/Clean Energy Research Institute in Xi’an, China.

Albert Lin, CEO of Emberclear, a company that’s trying to bring clean-coal technologies to the U.S.

John Hofmeister, former head of U.S.A. Shell. “You need to think of energy in a fifty-year timeframe, and our elected officials are thinking of energy in two-year election cycles. That’s ridiculous.”


"ETOM" was produced in High Definition and taped in Beijing and Tianjin (China); São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, (Brazil); Marrakesh and the Sahara (Morocco); Seville (Spain); Copenhagen and Samsø (Denmark); Edinburgh (Scotland); the Algodones Dunes, near Yuma, Arizona, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, California; Roscoe, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Kodiak Island and Chena Hot Springs, Alaska; Portland, Oregon; Fort Worth, Texas and in communities across Kansas.

Additional Information

Check out the Annotated Script with links to the climate science and sustainable energy solutions seen in the program and Richard Alley’s Global Warming FAQS.

Energize Your School: ETOM for Educators. Links to register as an Educator and get access to download high resolution segments for in-class use, plus special resources for teachers and informal science educators.

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