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Plugging the Internet into clean power

Google said this week it would invest $100 million in renewable energy sources.

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They are the factories of the Internet economy. US data centers and servers now consume more electricity each year than the entire state of Colorado. In five years, they could require nearly twice as much juice.

And while these data centers don't have smokestacks, many are spewing out greenhouse gases through the electricity they burn. Sensing high-voltage perils to both their public image and bottom line, Google announced Tuesday it will plow $100 million into the research and development of alternative energies.

The move is part of a broader high-tech industry scramble to secure reliable sources of electricity and to use it more efficiently. While worries about global warming factor in the equation, some analysts say major companies are also concerned that electricity could become a limiting factor on their growth.

"What Google has been doing over the past couple of years reflects a concern in the larger IT industry. 2007 is probably going to be looked back on as one of the greener years in data center history," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

By 2010, up to half of all data centers will be located in places where supplying the needed power will be a problem, says Mr. King. "There's a recognition that availability of electricity does have its limits."

But the demand for data centers – and by extension more electricity to power them – is only going up. It's driven by everything from the popularity of online video to new financial record-keeping requirements for businesses.

Top Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are beating paths to the Pacific Northwest to build data centers along the Columbia River to tap into the area's abundant hydro and wind power. Search engine just opened a new data center in Moses Lake, Wash. The carbon-free, renewable, and cheap hydropower advances both environmental and cost-cutting goals, says spokesman Patrick Crisp. Another bonus: The colder climate reduces energy needed to cool the servers.


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