Clean energy technology is key to America’s future, said former EPA Administrator Carol Browner in the opening session of the ULI Spring Meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Speaking to the meeting’s theme, “Power to Lead, Energy to Thrive,” Browner told the audience of over 3,000 real estate leaders that whoever leads the world in development of clean energy technology will lead the global economy.

“Global energy use will increase by 50 percent over the next two decades,” Browner pointed out. “Incomes are rising worldwide, with not millions but billions of people moving into the middle class, and they will all want appliances and vehicles that run on little energy. Who will win the race to develop clean energy technology: China, Germany, America? Shouldn’t it be us?”

Virtually all of the world’s most important technological innovations over the last century have come from the U.S., Browner noted, from the Ford Model T to space travel and the Internet. Yet at this point in time, other countries are far ahead of the U.S. in making clean energy investments. Germany plans to rely on renewables for 80 percent of its energy use by 2050, while Japan is set to become the world’s third largest solar market in just two years. Here in the U.S., however, “people tend to think of energy only when it is not working and when the price goes up, and we are bickering in a polarized political environment.”

It’s not that American companies and Federal agencies don’t have ideas, she continued. Currently under development are wireless electrical vehicle (EV) charging stations, nonstop while-you-drive EV charging, car batteries that collect and store solar and wind power, personal energy cell phone recharging devices that run off bodies in motion, social networking apps that allow people to compare their own energy use with that of their friends, smart appliances that learn the user’s living patterns, and much more.

Unlike in many other countries, however, private sector energy innovators are receiving lukewarm support from the Federal government. For instance, Congress recently allowed wind energy production tax credits to expire. As a result, the industry is likely to shelve 90 percent of its development plans for 2013, causing the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. The nation’s nascent solar energy industry has become a net exporter, opting to build capacity and sell in China where there is a guaranteed government-backed market.

It doesn’t have to be like this, Browner went on. The Federal government supported the then-new auto industry in the early 20th century and nuclear energy decades later. Disputing the notion that EPA’s regulations put a damper on the economy, Browner recalled how EPA’s ban on CFCs and regulating the soot level in diesel fuels spurred the market to create cleaner alternatives. And while some claim that the cost of regulatory compliance outweighs benefits, she cited a study finding that the economic benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act outweighed its costs by 20 to one.

“There is nothing we can’t do if we have open minds, work together, and adopt the right policies,” she concluded on a note of optimism. “We have a chance to make sure that America leads the way in development of clean energy technology.”