climate-savers.jpgGoogle, together with Intel, Dell, EDS, the EPA, HP, IBM, Lenovo, Microsoft, the World Wildlife Fund, and more than 20 other companies announced an initiative to educate companies and individuals on ways to use less energy while computing.

The plan is to reduce greenhouse emissions by 54 million tons a year and to save $5.5 billion in energy costs. It comes at a time when Google, Microsoft and others are using much more energy in their growing data centers.

It is centered around the Web site Climate Savers Computing, which teaches people how to take advantage of their existing computer’s power-saving capabilities such as sleep and hibernate modes. Such actions can reduce energy use by up to 60 percent. There’s more about the announcement here and on Google’s blog.

By setting high expectations among industry leaders, the initiative also hopes to increase the volume of more efficient computers being built and sold. This will eventually reduce the price “premium” paid on these green models to zero, and thereby encourage other organizations and consumers to purchase them.

The initiative currently focuses on meeting or surpassing guidelines set by the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s Energy Star specifications require that PC power supplies meet at least 80 percent minimum efficiency. The initiative wants to require a 90-percent minimum by 2010.

The scope is ambitious: While improving machines and user behavior is the focus of this initiative, the goal of climate-saving runs against some companies’ market goals.

For example, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large web companies are racing to offer more information and applications online. This requires the construction of massive data centers around the world. Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software officer, told Fortune last year his company is focusing on how to get power of any sort while managing “staggering” energy costs.

“Just think about where there are windmills, dams, and other natural power sources around the world, and that’s where you’re going to see server farms,” he said

Meanwhile, Google has started work on a data center in North Carolina that some environmentalists are worried will mostly tap into the region’s bountiful supply of coal (in fact, Duke Energy, the local power provider, is also currently building two new coal power plants in the state). Google has even convinced local lawmakers to not charge it the normal sales tax charge on electricity, according to The Register.

Urs Hlzle, senior vice president of Operations at Google, says that even though Google also has a big data center in Oregon, close to copious hydroelectric power, the real issue is solving the overall energy problem. Whether the company is making-do with power coming from dams or coal plants, the company wants to add its own value to the energy grid — “additionality,” he called it: creating additional renewable energy and reducing reliance on nonrenewable energy to zero.

But this efficiency initiative is so important, he says, because the single biggest issue is with organizational and consumer behavior.

“Your PC runs for 8 hours a day. Maybe you visit Google a few times. It doesn’t matter that much what we do in our data centers compared to what the world is doing.” He added that most of their high-volume servers are already at least 90 percent efficient — already passing the initiative’s current requirement of 85 percent efficiency.

Separately, Southern California company Snap has its own product, called C02 Saver — a free application that allows computer users to quickly and easily start saving electricity — up to 95 percent — when away from their computers. The application immediately adjusts the user’s Windows power settings to reduce energy use when the computer idle.

[Eric Eldon thought he was going to become a professional journalist when he graduated from college a little while back. But he was frustrated with the poor tools that his college newspaper had been using to write and edit articles so instead he cofounded a startup, Writewith, that makes online word processing work for groups. You can reach him at eric@writewith.com.]