SesnoPlanet Forward host Frank Sesno (right) with Kevin Harrison of the National Renewable Energy Lab.Courtesy of PBSThree things to know about Planet Forward, the PBS special about America’s energy future that runs at 8 p.m. Wednesday:

  1. Social media … used well! In the interest of bringing “citizens and their ideas together with decision makers,” asked for videos from folks with innovative energy ideas and collected wide-ranging responses. A solar-voltaic researcher opens his home electricity bill on camera to show the payment he earned by using rooftop panels to produce excess electricity. Rochester, N.Y., Girl Scouts make their own plea for solar energy. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley talks up nuclear energy. By keeping the editing tight, host Frank Sesno uses the short clips as discussion-starters with his guests.
  2. High-profile “gets.” The show begins with a lively panel debate that includes one of former president Bush’s top environmental advisers, Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton. It ends with the Obama administration’s top energy adviser, Carol Browner. Both face substantive questions from Sesno and his guests. After a video clip about mountaintop-removal mining, panelist L. Hunter Lovins calls out Connaughton: “Jim, you just saw a mountaintop being ripped into a valley. You cannot say that coal is clean.”

    (He responds by talking about cutting air pollutants and eventually carbon dioxide emissions, and about using coal power to lift people out of poverty, but not about the damages of mountaintop-removal mining.)

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  3. The model works. Sesno, a former CNN Washington Bureau Chief, creates a rapid-fire cable-news-paced disusssion that succeeds in being both informative and civil (why hasn’t anyone else though of that?). Sesno writes more about the vision:

We created Planet Forward, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to take this huge issue facing us — how we move to a sustainable, 21st century approach to the energy we use – and explore it in a way that is open, inclusive, creative and smart. We wanted to combine the power of the internet and the reach of television to bring together citizens, experts and decision-makers in a place where imagination and ideas would prevail. Sure, serious business — but also spontaneous and fun and unexpected.

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The project attracted some impressive testimonies. Sherry Boschert, who drives a plug-in hybrid and lives beneath rooftop panels “in the foggy part” of San Francisco, tells Browner, “Carol, I haven’t bought gasoline for seven years and 70,000 miles. So our message is, this is not new technology. We can do it, we just need the political will to make it happen. I’m please that President Obama campaigned on the promise to put one million hybrids on the road by 2015. We now need to accelerate that process.”

Even Connaughton, who mostly stuck to his role as apologist for clean coal and the Bush administration, had his moments.  On the potential of wind power, he says, “It’s not the technical challenges, but the political willingness to site these massive wind farms. There’s a lot of n-i-m-b-yism—not in my back yard—that is now ‘b-a-n-a-n-a-s’—build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”

The show’s model would be worth continuing – Planet Forward was conceived as an ongoing series, though no plans beyond the one-time special have been nailed down, a spokeperson said. If the show finds a home and catches on, it could do quite a bit to raise the national level of debate on energy.

For now, the special airs Wednesday and features the videos included in the debut, plus dozens more. Here’s one of the more entertaining, with original music, no less:

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Watch Wednesday’s premier to see Carol Browner’s response.