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

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
7 min read
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 made a big splash when it installed more than 2,000 solar panels 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.

Microsoft also had taken steps to reduce waste from the packaging of its software products and has eliminated from its packaging PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which some studies have shown to release dioxins that can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems.

The company also offers refurbishment programs that help organizations extend the life of older PCs and is working with manufacturing partners on ways to use materials that aren't as damaging to the environment as plastic and metals.

"We're doing tests on potato skins. Think of all those french fries out there," Krajewski said. "We're also looking at different biodegradable materials, such as corn starch and sugar."

Google in the running
Google's efforts are more low-key and esoteric. For instance, Google serves hormone-free chicken, beef from free-range cows and eggs from cage-free hens in its five cafeterias. Also, its first official mashup unveiled late last month is titled Summer of Green and has information about earth-friendly tourist destinations in the U.S.

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Video: Microsoft partners with the sun
Claims to be solar star in Silicon Valley

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page also have invested in solar power but company representatives declined to reveal more details on the executives' personal activities. Top executives were not available for comment, a representative said. Meanwhile, the company is low key about the fact that former vice president and longtime environmental activist Al Gore is an advisor to the company.

Google provides free shuttle rides for its employees in the San Francisco Bay Area to and from its offices in Mountain View, which is not far from Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus. The company also donates money to worker-chosen charities in exchange for employees getting to work by any means besides riding in cars. For instance, employees get points for walking, biking and taking public transportation.

All around the Google campus, which at times resembles a university mall more than an office complex, are bikes and electric scooters that workers use to get around the lush lawns and public right-of-way. A "bike doctor" offers free bike maintenance one day each quarter. Google also pays workers $5,000 toward the cost of new Prius or Honda Civic hybrid cars.

Google does not take its air and water quality lightly, either. For example, George Salah, director of facilities, goes by the "sniff test."

"It really is about people's health," Salah said during a tour last week of Google's "Green" Building 43. "Smell this," he instructed, snatching a magazine off a lobby table and brandishing it in front of this reporter's face. "If you can smell chemicals in something you buy it's probably not good for you," he said.

Green faux-leather couches are made from recycled material, the carpet is recycled and recyclable, and the staircases are made of sustainably forested wood. The walls were painted with low levels of volatile organic compounds, some of which are sound proofed with recycled blue jeans and most of which are accessorized with plants. Even some of the ergonomic Steelcase chairs are made from 92 percent recycled content and can eventually be used somewhere other than landfills.

The air-conditioning system uses 90 percent outside air that flushes fresh air from the nearby bay through the building and filters out particulates, as well as chemicals, Google said.

"We're trying to create the highest-quality space possible for people," Salah said. "We are all subjected to low levels of toxins every day in our lives...If we accumulate it over the span of a lifetime, sooner or later it's going to get you."

Whatever diseases the filter system can't prevent, perhaps the on-site doctor, massage therapists, nutritionist, yoga classes and volleyball courts can. The water systems use a reverse osmosis filter that provides better tasting and healthier water than can be found in plastic-leeching sports bottles.

Although a few toilets have heated seats and bidet-like functions, most of the toilets and urinals are energy efficient and use minimal water. Much of the lighting is also energy efficient and the ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling glass means many rooms don't need any electric light until it gets dark.

"They're making the indoor environment more human friendly. There are toxins in materials that can cause indoor air pollution," said Sierra Club's Van Velsor. "That's an important thing for corporations to recognize, as well."

Google, whose free cafeteria food is infamously tasty, takes its earth-friendly practices into the kitchen.

"We cook with a minimum of oil, no (cancer causing agents) nitrate and nitrite, and (use) organic where it makes sense," said John Dickman, global food services manager.

Like Microsoft, Google recycles and composts. The city of Mountain View is using Google as a test site for a compost project that is expected to be citywide, Dickman said.

Among the campus's five cafeterias is one opened in March called Cafe 150, which serves only ingredients from farms within 150 miles of the kitchen. The trash volume in the dining room is zero and all the to-go silverware, cups and containers are compostable, said Nate Keller, Cafe 150 executive chef. The ovens are economical, using computers to set temperatures and cooking times. One local supplier delivers goods in a biodiesel-based truck and fills it up with fat from the kitchen's fryer, Keller said.

"If you transport food from Chile, or even Florida, that's a significant distance and greenhouse gases are emitted in the transportation of that food," Van Velsor said.