11/15/2010 10:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tuning in to a Cleaner Energy Culture

As NBC Universal kicks off its seventh green-themed week this Sunday, Nov. 14-21, ideas that once seemed to be the stuff of science fiction are jumping off the drawing board and now rolling through Main Street America. Electric trucks are delivering classic American products such as Coca-Cola and Fritos around the nation. Next month, 20,000 Nissan Leafs, an all-electric passenger car, go on sale in five states. Also set to hit the road, GM's Chevy Volt -- an extended range electric car with an electric motor and internal combustion engine. 125 years after Karl Benz built the first automobile, the vanguard of a new transportation future is here.

Yet America's move to a clean-energy future seems stuck in neutral. Despite the catastrophic BP oil spill that killed eleven workers and threatened the viability of the northern Gulf Coast, there is no serious national conversation about reducing our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic. In the spill's massive slick, it was all too painful to see the oil industry's inability to quickly stop the flow of crude. Even with the stacking cap BP invented to shut the well, if there were another Deepwater Horizon-like disaster tomorrow, it would still take weeks to stop the resulting flow of oil. Though inventors of all stripes came forward with ideas for clean up, there is still no broadly effective way to keep the oil from coming ashore.

In 2008, as one of my colleagues dryly noted, "You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a candidate promising green jobs." Not so in 2010. A recession and an unemployment rate too close to 10 percent has pushed those ideas to the bottom of our national agenda. Understandably, people now want jobs that provide opportunity today -- not two, five, or 10 years down the road. Yet, while we search for immediate solutions to our economic problems, we must also look for opportunities to safeguard our environment. These are not mutually exclusive goals. They can go hand in hand. Unfortunately, instead of being a leader in this combined effort, America is falling behind other nations.

Germany is the world's leader in solar-power capacity. Brazil says it cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by more than a third in the past five years. China invested almost $35 billion in its clean-energy economy in 2009, according to a Pew study, nearly double that of the United States' $18.6 billion. Last month, the Chinese solar panel manufacturer Sun Tech opened its first factory in the United States and it hopes to double the number of workers there by 2012. The world's leading wind turbine company -- Denmark's Vestas -- has three plants in Colorado that has created more than 1,000 jobs. As these countries push forward with greener policies and businesses, the United States is at risk of suffering the long-term consequences of myopia. Much like the American auto industry of the recent past, the nascent clean-energy sector is in danger of stalling when it should be shifting into high gear.

I spent the later part of the 1980s and most of the 1990s covering the news in Detroit. I saw firsthand the reluctance (some would say obstinacy) of the "Big Three" to focus on fuel efficiency. Bill Ford Jr. told me he was looked at as a "Bolshevik" in the company that bears his name for proposing more environmentally-friendly vehicles. Despite rising gas prices and concerns about the impact of burning oil on the environment, the Big Three ignored the warning signs and invested in gas-guzzling cash cows. We all know how that strategy worked out.

Is America doing the same thing by not focusing more on clean energy? An ad campaign does not make coal clean. Only innovation and investment and people working to solve the problem can reduce the amount of pollutants that burning coal puts into the atmosphere. Solar and wind offer partial solutions. But we need to develop the kinds of large-scale batteries that could store enough power to be on-demand energy sources. There is also the issue of transmitting that power from where it is generated to where it is needed. These are daunting obstacles but they also represent the kind of clarion call that brings out the best in the American spirit... creativity and invention. This is the kind of challenge Detroit thrived on for the better part of a century. Change will not happen overnight, but if the same carmaker that brought us the Suburban can also deliver the Volt, real, substantial progress is within the reach of our lifetime.

On "NBC Nightly News" this week, you will see some of that American spirit at work as we look at people and companies trying to solve our food and transportation needs in ways that impact the planet less, and help the economy more. I invite you to tune in and take a look at the future. Technology is making a clean-energy economy ever more possible, but the question is: Do we have the will to make it our own?