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March 14, 2011

They've Got Sunshine on a Cloudy Future

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Who knew clouds could be so exciting?

On Friday, about 150 people (by my count) squeezed in to watch a discussion between Rob Bernard, Microsoft's Chief Environmental Strategist, and Bill Weihl, Google's Green Energy Czar, on "cloud computing" and the future of green tech in a warming world. Although business rivals, Google and Microsoft are two of the few Fortune 500 companies that are actively addressing climate change.

Bernard and Weihl are the look-outs for these two media giants, keeping their fingers on technology trends while aiming to make their respective companies carbon neutral.

It won't be easy as millions of people in China, India, Brazil, and other countries start using cell phones, computers, and other tech devices. Right now, according to Bernard and Weihl, the tech sector uses about two percent of electricity globally, but 35 percent of total energy is globally consumed by people using its products. "That two percent will grow but the other 98 percent will shrink" as the tech sector advances efficiency in all the other global sectors, Weihl said.

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Photos by Brian Foley.

Cloud computing provides Internet access and other virtual services not from a single source, but from "floating" servers that can accommodate up-to-the-minute demand. With cloud computing taking over the conventional way of doing things, Microsoft and Google have focused on their data centers -- facilities that house and provide huge amounts of data, telecommunications, and storage. Data centers use lots of energy.

The good news is that during the past ten years, the amount of energy required to run computer servers has fallen "by a factor of two." Noting that buildings account for a large chunk of carbon emissions, Bernard mentioned that Microsoft is going so far as to brainstorm the idea of data centers that don't require physical buildings.

Not all of Google and Microsoft's energy initiatives have been successful, though.

Both companies launched user-friendly programs -– Microsoft's Hohm and Google's PowerMeter –- to help consumers monitor their home energy. Both have fallen well short of expectations.

"We aspired to have many, many millions of users. We're not there yet," Weihl conceded.

For the most part, though, both Weihl's and Bernard's tone were upbeat. The tech industry is making waves with other industries and business sectors, they said. For example, video conferencing is now a viable alternative to air travel for workers. And Bernard reiterated the recent news that Microsoft is partnering with Ford in using the Hohm software to speed up the electric-vehicles charging process.

Likewise, Google has been very public with its clean-energy investments. Much of it is strategic, Weihl said. Its 20-year commitment with an Iowa wind farm is meant to "provide certainty" and to enable the energy developer to invest in more clean energy elsewhere.

The Iowa deal itself "was remarkably complicated" to put together, Weihl said. However, it set a precedent for future deals. It's the type of trail-blazing thinking and doing that is laying the path for a clean-energy future.

The event in San Francisco was part of the Commonwealth Club of California's Climate One program. Archived footage of this event will be posted in the near future here, where you can view other Climate One discussions.

-- Brian Foley

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