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This Planet is a series of short video stories that draw on the best new videos, awesome graphics, and surprising facts about climate, energy and innovation.

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This Planet Chronicle

Kansas is Perplexed

Evelyn Messinger

A titanic struggle is shaping up in the U.S. over whether, and how much, renewable energy technologies need governmental support. The issue is especially acute in the State of Kansas, which has a more mature wind energy industry than most U.S. states. Kansas wind generates almost 3,000 Megawatts and according to the  Wind Energy Foundation, the price of wind-generated power in Kansas is now competitive with other sources. That means an active wind power lobby, and many Kansans are reaping rewards from allowing wind generators on their land. Kansas has a state-wide mandate: 20% renewable energy by 2020. And most of it will be wind:

A joint project of BP Wind Energy and Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, the Flat Ridge 2 Wind Farm in Kansas is the largest single-build wind farm in U.S. history. The project represents a major investment in renewable power for U.S. consumers.

But Kansas is also the home of  Koch Industries, a huge fossil fuel company whose founders are deeply involved in conservative politics. The majority of electricity in Kansas is generated by coal, and whether wind can totally replace coal is debatable. In any case, the Koch-controlled conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity is fighting to repeal the renewable mandate in Kansas, with commercials like this:

AFP-Kansas' TV ad promoting the repeal of green energy mandates in Kansas.

Republicans swept the November 2014 midterm election in Kansas just as in the rest of the country, and the effects will be felt. The newly re-elected Governor has switched from supporting the 20% renewable mandate to opposing it.

Whether wind is strong enough to stand on it's own against coal is unknown, but it's pretty clear the test is coming. Despite the probable demise of the mandate, there's no reason that This Planet can't have some fun, in the episode we call Kansas & The Wind.

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45 Years On

Evelyn Messinger

It is a season of space accomplishments and space anniversaries. The 45th anniversary of man landing on the moon was in June 2014, while a bare five months later - that is, today, the day this is being written, November 12 -  the European Space Agency has landed a craft on a comet.

But what is arguably the most significant event of the Space Age, the event that changed everything, is only tangentially about space. It is a photograph taken from Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968:

This image turned out to be a Christmas present to all humanity. A once-in-a-lifetime love affair was launched, between us and this planet. And that's what inspired our This Planet episode called I Still Love Her.

To this day, you could say nothing we've done in space has had a fraction of the value, economic and spiritual, as our ability to gaze at the Earth. So it was appropriate for NASA to memorialize the moment with this little video that uses the audio recordings of that mission, melded with a re-creation of what the astronauts saw.

A lot has happened since 1968 --  look at these satellite images that show our highly-refined ability to measure the impact of humans on this planet, including the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere:

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, launched in July 2014, studies carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The mission will provide a more complete, global picture of the human and natural sources of CO2 as well as "carbon sinks," the places where CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored (such as in plants and the ocean).

Earth observation has turned out to be a very profitable enterprise, creating and then fulfilling a huge demand to quantify what's going on down below. That's why commercial enterprises like Skybox are getting snapped up by companies like Google...click on this remarkable image to learn more:

 

But for those of us more interested in love than commerce or science, it is her sheer beauty that matters. And just as Mona Lisa had her Leonardo, the Planet Earth has a great portraiturist to immortalize her. It's called Globaïa, and you can enjoy what they do here:

Produced by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and Globaia and funded by the UN Foundation. The data visualization summarizes several of the most significant statements in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) recent Fifth Assessment Report.

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Threshold of the Graphene Era

Evelyn Messinger

Our This Planet video episode Bunny, Billionaire & Pencil starts with Elon Musk. Every age has its genius and Musk could be ours. A millionaire in his 20's and billionaire in his 30's, Musk is a serial tech entrepreneur who seems less interested in money than in his fixations with cars, rocket ships and alternative energy.

Musk attracted lots of attention last summer by "open sourcing" all the battery patents at his electric car company, Tesla Motors. Musk told MSNBC's Chris Hayes that Tesla has too big a lead on other car companies, because "if Tesla succeeds, but the climate is destroyed, I'm not sure that actually helps Tesla."

So Musk wants other car companies to catch up in order to save this planet?

Not so fast, say plenty of commentators, including those at the online economic policy discussion series  The Lip, which we used in our video. Not pure altruism but pure genius, because Tesla's rival isn't another electric car company, it's the gas guzzlers.

Enough about Elon Musk! Except that he is also the founder of Solar City, which will sell or rent you solar panels, as well as a way to store the power they generate...and yes, that means batteries.

And batteries are what we care about, because improving batteries means cheaper and more effective use of renewable energy. So we get to the part about the pencil. If every age has its genius, it also has its key material. There was the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. We are living in the Silicon Age. Tomorrow: the Age of graphene.  Although our interest in graphine is all about batteries, please allow a brief digression: 

Graphene is simply a single sheet of graphite, a form of carbon that is the source of pencil "lead" - one of the most common materials on this planet.

Graphene is simply a single sheet of graphite, a form of carbon that is the source of pencil "lead" - one of the most common materials on this planet.

Graphene is pure carbon in the form of a very thin, nearly transparent sheet, one atom thick. It wasn't even discovered until 2004, though it had been theorized for a long time. The discovery won the Nobel Prize in 2007. The amazing properties of graphene are what make it special:

remarkably strong for its very low weight (100 times stronger than steel) and it conducts heat and electricity with great efficiency

The heat and electricity conducting properties of graphine are what make it such a potentially great battery material. But manufacturing graphine cheaply was a problem, until this very cool discovery (also excerpted in our video) by scientists at UCLA:

 

The graphene field is really taking off. To keep up, follow this list from Vanderbilt University, where some of the best research is taking place. Like this idea, to build energy storage right into solar panels by incorporating a layer of graphene between the layers of silicon.

Click the image to read about it

Click the image to read about it

Solar power and efficient batteries united at last...are you listening Elon Musk? We think you are...

And finally, let's talk about the bunny. What's he doing in this story? You will just have to watch to find that out.

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INNOVATION EVERYWHERE ON THIS PLANET

ThisPlanet

We get excited by the kind of innovation that's both local and global, like these two This Planet videos. They are quite different: one is about how the Dutch are helping New York City survive the next Hurricane Sandy, and one about entrepreneurs selling solar lamps in rural Rwanda. But they are similar in portraying local actions, which are sometimes difficult to track, but are likely to have the most impact when taken together.

The Dutch have spent a few centuries thinking up cool ways to control water (the Sand Motor is one of their latest ideas). No surprise that the post-Hurricane Sandy project, Rebuild by Design, has not only hired a Dutchman but is spending millions on innovations meant to increase community resiliency while diverting water from subways and streets. This is a very good time to think about water, according to Climate Central, now that the seas are inexorably rising

Getting solar-powered lighting to Africa by training women entrepreneurs, as Solar Sister does, makes sense. Women are driving innovative sustainability all over the world. Organizations like The Women's Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN) play a quiet but crucial role in educating and organizing women about climate action in their own best interest. Now the UN has gotten into the act with the Sustainability For All project, supporting women-based initiatives among a vast array of energy and sustainability projects.

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