No matter what you might think about the massive bailout bill in Washington, one thing is certain. We cannot really "fix" our economy until we address America's energy needs and stop our addiction to foreign oil. I won't minimize the importance of other factors, such as the mortgage and Wall Street meltdowns, the credit crisis, and the storm of bankruptcies and layoffs – but in my view, the most important problem is energy.

I would argue that our dependence on foreign oil is a huge drag on the U.S. economy, one that is visible from the $4.50 per gallon gas prices last summer to layoffs in the auto industry. It's also a threat to our national security, putting us in the predicament of being dependent on foreign energy resources that can be compromised overnight by turmoil in the Middle East.

If they gave me a vote, I'd invest the entire bailout bill on Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs that are innovating new energy solutions. That's the kind of super-focused "change we need" to make a difference in the energy landscape.

But first, let's just talk about the money.

The first bailout bill, from President Bush, was designed to rescue Wall Street and many banks. The so-called TARP bailout cost taxpayers $750 billion. That sum is roughly equivalent to what America spends every year on foreign oil, with 16 percent to 18 percent of that money, or $120 to $135 billion, going to Persian Gulf countries that are sometimes hostile to U.S. policies.  

If you invested all the money we currently spend on foreign oil back into the U.S. economy, you'd create a "$750 billion bailout" for the economy each and every year. You could quadruple that contribution by redirecting the estimated $3 trillion we're spending on our oil-related wars on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, (as unrealistic as this may be, it puts the bailout bill discussions into an appropriate financial perspective).

President Obama has already announced an ambitious set of programs to address short and long term energy issues, including programs to jumpstart electric cars and reduce greenhouse gases. These are positive blueprints for action at the government level. However, waiting for Washington to work miracles is not a good strategy for Silicon Valley companies. We must assert our own priorities and move on them, in concert with others, utilizing the spirit of innovation and technological excellence that we've developed over 60 years.

While our GDP continues to shrink, the bottom line for business is that the private sector, not government, will have to bear the brunt of solving our energy (and economic) issues.  This is where Silicon Valley will rear its head once again, using innovation, eco-chips and green energy programs to help rescue the U.S. economy. A big task, to be sure, but well within our capabilities. Silicon Valley engineers have a robust history of inventing new technologies that not only revolutionize the way we work and play, but create jobs and markets. As the CEO of a company that makes programmable-logic chips that save and manage energy in large and small electronic systems, I am confident that Silicon Valley's hardware and software engineers will become the foot soldiers, sergeants and generals in our campaign to solve America's energy problems.

Let's start with our dependence on foreign oil. We've had plenty of opportunities to address our oil addiction over the years, going back to the Oil Embargo crisis of 1973, but we haven't mustered enough political courage, or popular support, to do anything about it beyond imposing tougher fuel economy standards for cars. These worthwhile regulations, long resisted by the auto industry, have helped reduce the flow of toxic emissions into the atmosphere – but not reduced our thirst for oil.

Short of simply reducing consumption, the only practical way to combat our reliance on foreign oil is to expand the use of alternate energy, including solar and nuclear, and promote faster adoption of electric cars. Since cars and trucks consume approximately half of all the oil we use, every day, focusing on car-based solutions is a smart idea. Gasoline used in cars, in fact, accounts for 17 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S.

Here's another way of looking at the consequences of maintaining an oil-based energy economy. The US produces about 10 percent of the world's oil, but consumes approximately 24 percent. We produce 41 percent of the oil we consume, but import the remaining 58 percent. Because of this imbalance, we are acutely vulnerable economically to the volatility of global oil markets as well as the political instability of oil-producing regimes in the Middle East. The trickle-down effect of oil's impact on the U.S. economy is stark.

And don't be fooled by the temporary downturn of oil prices! There's only one direction for oil prices to go in the future – up, up and up!

So, while gas prices are temporarily less toxic, it's time for Silicon Valley to step up.
Fortunately, many startups and established companies here, as well as in other tech centers around the U.S., have the expertise to invent alternative energy sources. Many companies are already investing huge sums in programs that alternately save energy, manage energy and/or capture new energy, particularly from solar cells. Universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, are also heavily committed to research in alternative energies that are designed to provide an environmentally sustainable substitute for oil, coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels that currently provide 85 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. These fossil fuels are also the prime culprits in the creation of greenhouse gases and global warming.

At a recent symposium, Eco-Chip 2009, I invited two other chip-industry CEOs, Brian Halla of National Semiconductor and T. J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, to share examples of energy innovations that are already in development. These include "PowerWise" circuits from National that manage and maximize power usage in electronic systems. Halla also introduced "SolarMagic" circuits that improve the efficiency of solar panels. Rodgers, meanwhile, demonstrated a wireless thermostat controller that can be used to save heat and energy in commercial buildings and offices. Another Cypress invention recaptures and recycles heat from car exhaust systems.

As T. J. said so well, "We need 10,000 ideas like this." At Actel, we've focused our innovation on power efficient programmable logic devices that save energy both at the chip level, and the system level.

Silicon Valley has done it before. From the microchip to personal PCs, the Internet and iPods, from communications to transportation, industrial controls and medical equipment, we've innovated semiconductor technology and software to solve real-world problems and improve quality of life. By attacking our energy issues with a genuine openness to "change," the land of venture capital, entrepreneurial capitalism, risk-taking and engineering excellence can help, once again, lead the United States out of its economic doldrums.

Finally, there are small steps we can take as an in industry to create momentum for the larger tasks ahead. For example, we should launch an energy certification program for integrated circuits. From individual chips to electronic systems, Silicon Valley companies will benefit from a measurement program that benchmarks the efficiency of their products. Our low power and power management semiconductors should be certified as "eco-chips" if they meet dual standards of reliability and low power usage. This program would help boards, systems and end products minimize energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gases.

Another small step that could be lead to a giant leap in conservation is our need to rethink how we approach product design. Engineers should be encouraged to review the tradeoffs between power and performance. Going forward, we need to design for minimum power usage and minimal impact upon the environment, not just maximum performance. The golden rule should be, "If low-power components are available, use them!"

The above opinion piece is from an independent writer and is not connected with Greentech Media News. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not endorsed by Greentech Media.