Microsoft vs. Google: Who's greener?

The two Internet companies work to reduce energy use and promote sustainability as product battle heats up. Photos: Green companies

As Google and Microsoft battle for the hearts and minds of Internet users, a new question has cropped up: Which one can better save planet Earth?

Being portals and search engines, the companies are likely among the worst energy users because of the cooling and energy their data centers need to operate. When asked, company representatives did not say what, if anything, the data centers are doing to improve efficiency and reduce energy.

Tech giants go green

No doubt, Google and Microsoft, two of the top Internet sites in the world, use massive amounts of electricity to power and cool their data centers. But outside of the electricity that makes the businesses run, they are among the leading adopters of so-called green policies in corporate America.

Subsidies for buying Priuses? Check. Solar panels? Check. Hormone-free chicken in the corporate cafeteria? Check. Between them, they're doing a variety of things to try to make the Sierra Club, organic farmers and Al Gore proud.

"Any organization that looks at a way to become more efficient and reduce its energy consumption and emissions and makes facilities more human friendly and less toxic and more resource-conscious from the standpoint of sustainability is taking positive steps toward living in the environment in a more compatible way," said Stan Van Velsor, global warming program coordinator for environmental group Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Chapter office in Palo Alto, Calif.

So who is the greenest of them all? While it's nearly impossible to make a judgment, both tech titans seem to have made Earth-friendly policies a priority.

Microsoft's credentials
Microsoft across more than 30,000 square feet on top of its Mountain View, Calif., campus on Earth Day in April. The panels, believed to be part of the largest solar power system in Silicon Valley, generate 480 kilowatts of power at peak capacity--enough energy to power 500 homes--and provide about 15 percent of the campus's total energy, said George Koshy, facilities manager. For the rainy Seattle area, where the company's headquarters is located, solar is not a feasible alternative, he said.

Installing solar power is an "excellent way" to help reduce the demand for electricity and thus curb greenhouse gas emissions created by the generation of that electricity, Van Velsor said.

Microsoft also has agreed to promote carbon-dioxide emission reduction among individual employees as part of the Cool It campaign, which helps people calculate their lifestyle's carbon dioxide emissions, Van Velsor said.

In addition, Cascade Investment, a venture firm funded by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has invested $84 million in Pacific Ethanol, which manufactures a corn-derived ethanol that can be mixed with gas to power cars.

One of the most important things any company can do to promote earth-friendly practices is to get employees out of their cars, Van Velsor noted. Microsoft provides free mass-transit passes for its 35,000 employees in the Seattle area, subsidizes transit for its roughly 1,500 Silicon Valley employees, and offers free shuttles between train stations and offices, a Microsoft representative said. Employees get a discount when buying gas-electric hybrid cars, and Microsoft uses hybrid Toyota Priuses as shuttles on the main campus.

In 2005, Microsoft was recognized as one of the top five best workplaces for commuters by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Joan Krajewski, chief environmental counsel for the company. More than 11,000 workers commute to the Redmond, Wash., main campus via some "green" method such as mass transit, bike or car pool.

Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus, built in 1999, features dimmable and motion sensor-based lighting, carpets and doors that are made from recycled material (which can be recycled again), and drought-resistant landscaping, said site leader John Matheny.

An advanced irrigation management system on Microsoft's campuses replenishes the water when it detects weather changes, reducing the annual water usage by 11 million gallons, Krajewski said. The copiers and printers use paper that contains at least one-third recycled content, and the Redmond campus alone recycles 129 tons of material a month, she said.

Microsoft has a silver certification level for the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program for environmental design. Microsoft also works with the Carbon Disclosure Project to track kilowatts of usage.

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