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Why Cloud Computing Leaders Need to Demand Clean Power

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The launch of Apple’s (s AAPL) iPad this weekend represents a lot of firsts for the tech industry: a device with some of the most media attention of all time, and the start of an $8 billion tablet application market. But the iPad also represents one of a wave of media-consuming mobile devices that increasingly depends on “the cloud” — basically the Internet and data centers — to deliver hosted services and digital content, and will help contribute to a massive growth in energy consumption and carbon emissions associated with so-called cloud-computing over the coming years.

According to a report published Tuesday from the environmental researchers at Greenpeace , the energy consumption and carbon emissions of cloud computing are already significantly higher than previously thought. Using data from The Climate Group’s Smart 2020 report, which came out in 2008 and relied on carbon emission projections from McKinsey, Greenpeace added in the energy consumption info for data centers reported by the Environmental Protection Agency. The result is that Greenpeace says that the energy consumption of cloud computing in 2007 was 622.6 billion kWh, which is 1.3 times larger than reported by the Smart 2020 report.

This new, larger estimate of energy consumption associated with cloud computing emphasizes just how big the problem will be as the sector grows over the coming years. Cloud computing is a trend that has just started (see our Structure 2010 conference)¬†and business-focused cloud computing initiatives like Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Azure platform have recently launched. Using the more aggressive cloud computing energy footprint, Greenpeace says that cloud computing will consume 1,963.74 billion kWh of energy by 2020.

All of this isn’t to say that cloud computing companies need to curb their growth. Rather, they need to focus on making data centers and servers more energy efficient and increasingly look to source more clean power. Greenpeace points to Facebook’s decision to build its first-ever data center in Prineville, Ore., which will primarily be powered by coal (GigaOM Pro, subscription required), as a major missed opportunity.

Instead, Internet giants like Google (s GOOG), Yahoo (s YHOO), and Apple should use their energy buying power to demand more access to economic clean power and to support policies that will help drive the proliferation of low-cost renewables. Greenpeace says:

The potential of ICT technologies and cloud computing to drive low-carbon economic growth underscore the importance of building cloud infrastructure in places powered by clean renewable energy. Companies like Facebook, Google, and other large players in the cloud computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy.

We’ll be looking at the issues of energy consumption and the carbon footprint of information technology, data centers and servers at our Green:Net conference. Google’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl will be discussing some of the search engine’s industry-leading green data center work, and Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell, one of the authors of the report, will be discussing how the Internet leads to dematerialization, or replacing atoms with bits.