As gridlock in Washington, D.C., stalls progress on clean energy policy at the federal level, states are “leading the charge toward a new energy economy,” former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. said.

“The American public doesn’t understand how broken the system is,” said Ritter, speaking at the 25th annual SRI Conference earlier this week in Colorado Springs, Colo. Nearly 600 financial professionals attended.

Ritter, who heads the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, said a lack of leadership in Washington is causing governors from both red and blue states to focus on developing clean, affordable energy, while trying to reduce the impact of climate change, create jobs and keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of global competition.

During his four-year term as Colorado governor, Ritter signed 57 new energy bills into law that have been credited with creating thousands of new jobs and hundreds of wind, solar and other renewable energy companies.

After the 2010 mid-term elections, Ritter said Congress began backing away from energy policy. “Since then, it’s only gotten worse,” the Democrat said.

In January, Ritter delivered a report to the White House outlining policy options that the administration could pursue to develop a clean energy economy and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.

Ritter said the bipartisan report was developed with the help of over 100 CEOs, policy experts and academics from around the county with expertise in energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative fuels for vehicles, business models for utilities and regulating the natural gas industry. Ritter said Republicans and Democrats found common ground on how Americans think and feel about energy policy and agreed on a list of “reasonable suggestions.”

“While there’s still some partisan rattling, there’s a far better story to be told,” said Ritter. About 220 million Americans live in a state with a renewable-energy standard and about 240 million live in a state with some kind of energy-efficiency standard, he added.

“So, you look at what’s happening in those states and we’ve actually made some really significant progress, both on the renewability side and the energy efficiency side,” he said.

It’s a mistake to think that all the progress on clean energy has happened in Democratic-leaning states, he said, noting that Republican governors have been talking about clean energy issues differently than they did at the beginning of their terms in 2010.

Ritter cited Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, who has spent the last few years looking at how Nevada can transition to a clean energy economy and possibly develop an export industry that could sell clean power to California.

“It’s an economic reason, in part, and an environmental reason, in part. You begin to see this group of Republican governors beginning to understand that there is a rationale for doing this,” said Ritter, noting that clean energy could grow into a $1 trillion industry sector.

One reason states may be more proactive on energy issues while Congress bickers may be that governors are under greater pressure to create jobs, develop energy resources, control costs to ratepayers and protect the environment.

“Governors don’t always have the luxury [to play politics on the energy issue],” Ritter said. “So pay attention to what’s happening in the states.”