When Google ( GOOG) announced earlier this month that it was making a nearly $40 million investment in two wind farms owned by NextEra Energy Resources, many investors were left scratching their heads. Google is known for allowing its employees to pursue pet projects on company time, but a not-so-insignificant investment in wind turbines in North Dakota seems like a stretch for the world's largest search engine. Upon closer review, however, the wind power investment is right up Google's alley, and its latest business venture could have some wide-ranging effects.

The infrastructure behind the Internet that has become a vital part of both personal and professional lives around the globe is a great mystery to most users. Because the World Wide Web is so intangible in nature, few have given much consideration to the energy needed to power such a ubiquitous part of American life.

"The digital photos, shared videos, tweets and Facebook chatter that make up our online lives may appear to have no physical form, but they contribute to some very real environmental damage," writes Stephen Foley of the Independent.

The digital data that seems to be floating through cyberspace is actually stored in a massive network of computers that are owned by Google, Yahoo! ( YHOO) and others. These computers are stored throughout the world in "data warehouses" that consume incredible quantities of energy to stay running 24/7.

So what's powering the bulk of this high-tech network that puts streaming videos, music, and seemingly limitless information at the fingertips of billions of people around the globe? Solar power? Hydro power? Clean nuclear technology? Not exactly. According to a recent report, many of these computer farms are located in areas of the U.S. where electricity is generated primarily at coal-fired power plants.

Expanding Carbon Footprint

This need for coal-based power has put the companies that own these data warehouses in the crosshairs of environmental groups seeking to promote clean-burning alternatives.

"The last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power," reads a recent report released by Greenpeace.

The Internet's power-appetite is already impressive and is only expected to grow. "The data center industry now is on par with the airline industry as far as the carbon footprint," says Jeff Monroe, head of Verne Global, a datacenter company working in Iceland. And as the amount of information stored in this cloud grows -- it's estimated that 24 hours of video footage are uploaded to YouTube every minute -- so too does the number of computers needed to store and disseminate it. This translates into greater demand for coal and coal energy, an often-overlooked side effect of the Web's tremendous growth.

Coal and Wind ETFs in Focus

So in this context, Google's recent expansion into the wind power industry begins to make a lot of sense. As one of the world's largest corporate consumers of electricity, Google could dramatically reduce its reliance on coal-fired technology if wind power emerges as a cost-efficient and widely available alternative. Google enjoys a strong reputation as a good corporate citizen, drawing praise for everything from its resistance to Beijing's push for censorship to its eco-friendly headquarters. With the company's use of coal power beginning to draw scrutiny, the investment in alternative energy sources is a logical one to preserve its image and perhaps even cut costs down the road.

Here are two exchange-traded funds that could feel the impact of this development over the long term.

Market Vectors Coal ETF ( KOL) -- Google's efforts to move away from coal and towards wind power certainly won't spell the end of the global coal industry, at least not overnight. Nevertheless, it threatens to hamper growth in one of the few growth areas for coal power. This ETF tracks the Stowe Coal Index, investing in companies worldwide that generate at least 50% of their revenue from coal.

First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy ETF ( FAN) -- This ETF stands in contrast to KOL. It tracks the ISE Global Wind Index, a benchmark that includes companies providing goods and services to the wind industry. FAN has slumped in recent months as incentives for alternative energy companies have dried up amidst steep budget cuts, but many investors remain bullish on this sector.

At the time of writing, Johnston had no positions in the securities mentioned.
Michael Johnston is the senior analyst and founder of ETF Database, a Web-based investment resource providing actionable ETF investment ideas and an ETF Screener for investors analyzing potential ETF investments. Johnston oversees ETF Database's free ETF Newsletter, one of the most popular sources for news and commentary focusing exclusively on the exchange-traded fund industry. Johnston also maintains and develops content for ETFdb Pro, a line of analyst reports and model portfolios designed to help investors utilize ETFs to meet their investment goals.

Johnston has completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program, and obtained his bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Notre Dame. Prior to founding ETF Database, Michael worked in a private client service group performing valuations of companies operating in a wide range of industries.