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 FootprintThis 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.
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.