By Valerie Volcovici
NEW YORK, Oct 16 (Reuters) - As mobile devices proliferate and big business turns to cloud computing to cut costs and improve efficiency, technology companies are facing a double challenge: powering energy-hungry data centers to expand the cloud while keeping carbon emissions from skyrocketing.
Cloud computing has paved the way for technologies such as video conferencing and smart building management that can make corporations greener. But it is also shifting a larger share of electricity consumption - and the carbon output associated with it - onto firms such as Google and Microsoft that run the data centers or manufacture computer servers.
The trend has made low-carbon energy access and conservation a competitive necessity in the technology sector. Faster, smaller servers and renewable energy contracts accomplish both, industry sources said.
"As you take a look at the fact that the cloud today uses as much energy as the country of Japan every year, you know it doesn't take much longer until we run out of energy," Gabi Zedlmayer, chief progress officer at Hewlett Packard, said in an interview as part of the Reuters Global Summit on Climate change from Oct 13. to Oct. 16.
"We knew we had to disrupt what we are doing and put our R&D in the server line to go toward zero energy," she said.
The current focus on HP Labs' research is a system called "The Machine," which combines memory storage and cache into a single device and uses fiber optics instead of copper.
It has also recently unveiled its "Moonshot" server, a customized server that takes up 80 percent of the space of and uses 89 percent less power than regular servers that require huge amounts of energy for heating and cooling.
Josh Henretig, Microsoft's director of environmental sustainability, said the spread of cloud computing is shifting "carbon accountability" - a responsibility to cut emissions - to technology companies from their customers who were "unplugging their own IT infrastructure and handing that over to Microsfot to manage in our own cloud environment."
"The transition in our business model moving from a physical software that customers downloaded on their machines to one that is delivered through the cloud ... was forcing us to build and create large-scale data centers all around the world," Henretig said in a separate interview in New York.
"This in turn was putting a lot of pressure on our energy supply and our carbon emissions," he added.
THE CLOUD IS SIXTH-LARGEST ELECTRICITY USER
The growth of cloud computing and current use of the Internet results in a electricity demand that would rank sixth as a country in current rankings, according to an April report on greening the Internet by environmental group Greenpeace.
Demand could grow by 60 percent or more by 2020, the report said, as the online population grows globally.
The group said there is a compelling business case for companies to rapidly shift to renewable energy to power their data centers since renewable energy costs are dropping.
Henretig said the company's wind energy investments to date represent as much as 10 percent of the company's energy use.
The company has signed two 20-year power purchase agreements from a 110-megawatt wind farm in Texas and a 175-megawatt wind farm in Illinois.
The company also uses an internal carbon fee to hold itself accountable for the carbon it emits from energy use to real estate to air travel, which makes renewable energy more competitive with cheaper natural gas.
Microsoft is playing catchup with rival Google, which has signed five power purchase agreements for wind power totaling nearly 600 megawatts of capacity. The Internet search giant has also worked with local utilities to push for more renewable energy to power its data center in coal-reliant North Carolina.
And on Thursday, Internet rival Yahoo Inc announced it had entered into a long-term power purchase agreement for wind power with wind farm developer OwnEnergy to support its operations in the Great Plains region.
The competition for the next long-term wind or renewable energy deal between Google or Microsoft has potential benefits for the environment, Henretig said.
"We'll compete in other areas, but we both agree that is a healthy rivalry to have - especially when some of these breakthrough technologies come to bear in how we manage large-scale cloud infrastructure more efficiently," he said.
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