Microsoft announces 175-megawatt wind farm deal, broadens renewable energy commitment

Microsoft will purchase 175 megawatts of wind energy from the Pilot Hill Wind Project in Illinois, about 60 miles south of Chicago, as part of a 20-year agreement announced Tuesday.

It’s the second such deal in as many years and indicative of Microsoft’s growing commitment to renewable energy and sustainability.

When it comes online next year, Pilot Hill will be Microsoft’s largest wind project and one of the biggest corporate wind purchases from a single facility, generating more than enough energy to power Microsoft’s Chicago datacenter. The total output of the project is equivalent to the electricity consumption of 70,000 homes in Illinois.

keechi

Microsoft purchased 110 megawatts of energy from the Keechi Wind Farm in Texas in 2013.

The deal with owner and operator EDF Renewable Energy follows a similar agreement in Texas in 2013 where Microsoft purchased 110 megawatts of wind energy from the Keechi Wind Farm. It solidifies the company’s commitment to taking significant action to shape our energy future by developing clean, low-cost sources, says Brian Janous, Microsoft’s director of energy strategy.

“Microsoft is focused on transforming the energy supply chain for cloud services from the power plant to the chip,” he explains. “Commitments like Pilot Hill ensure a cleaner grid to supply energy to our datacenters.”

The power purchase agreement with Microsoft provided the long-term revenue certainty needed to get Pilot Hill off the ground, says Ryan Pfaff, EDF Renewable Energy’s executive vice president of development.

“As the cost of renewable energy continues to decline, it is encouraging to see leading corporations investing in the sector based not only on their desire to positively impact the environment, but also because it simply makes good business sense,” he adds.

The deal is financed in part by Microsoft’s internal carbon fee, assessed to business groups based on their use of energy, primarily in the form of electricity and air travel. In short, requiring the company’s various divisions to be responsible for offsetting their carbon emissions.

Microsoft has come a long way in its evolution toward sustainability since announcing two years ago that it would go carbon neutral.

The goal of the carbon offset program is “simple,” wrote Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, on the Green Blog in May 2012: “Be lean. Be green. Be accountable.”

The Purus River in Brazil's Acre State, a rain forest conservation program Microsoft is participating in using carbon-offset funds.

The Purus River in Brazil’s Acre State, a rain forest conservation program Microsoft is participating in using carbon-offset funds.

Last year, Microsoft followed up with investments in over 20 global carbon offset projects in a wide range of countries, including India, Peru, Guatemala, Mongolia, China, Brazil, Kenya, Cambodia, Turkey and the U.S.

One example is Brazil’s Acre State, a project that works with local groups to provide alternative models of economic development that protect the health of the local ecosystem.

Another is Mt. Kenya, a project that combines reforestation with community development activities, enabling households to improve access to food and create additional sources of income beyond subsistence farming.

The carbon fee has also been instrumental in helping Microsoft meet its objective to transform the energy supply chain toward greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

In addition to delivering new renewable energy projects to the grid, the company is also investing in distributed generation technologies, or creating and storing energy as close as possible to the location where it will ultimately be used. Microsoft has an interest in distributed generation both as it relates to the company’s physical offices spread throughout the world, as well as its datacenters, with their energy-hungry servers and processers.

In Silicon Valley at Microsoft’s Mountain View, California campus, 2,288 solar panels covering more than 31,000 square feet of rooftop generate 480 kilowatts and equal an annual savings of 15 percent in energy consumption for the more than 2,600 employees at that location.

Solar panels on the rooftop of Microsoft’s Mountain View, California campus. Credit: Dennis Agatep.

In 2012, Microsoft went off the grid with the city of Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming and Fuel Cell Energy, with the first zero-carbon datacenter. The biogas used to power the 200-kilowatt facility is a byproduct of waste from a nearby water treatment plant.

This spring, Microsoft announced a three-year agreement with the University of Texas at San Antonio. Students will work hand-in-hand with Microsoft researchers to explore “fast-start generation” technologies such as micro-turbines — combustion machines that produce both heat and electricity on a smaller scale — in an effort to develop distributed generation technologies.

And just last month, Microsoft was part of a project team that was awarded a grant from Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (the U.S. Department of Energy’s research arm) to develop and commercialize next-generation, low-temperature solid oxide fuel cells. The goal is to bring the power plant into the data center by integrating fuel cell stacks into every server cabinet.

“The evolution of the energy sector,” Janous explains, “is toward more distributed energy resources.”

Janous himself is evidence of Microsoft’s move to not only take sustainability seriously, but to weave it into the DNA of the company.

Brian Janous, Microsoft's director of energy strategy.

Brian Janous, Microsoft’s director of energy strategy.

His collection of rugged outerwear and laid-back style notwithstanding, Janous is a Houston native who came to Microsoft (and to Seattle) via St. Louis. A former energy consultant, he never envisioned working for a technology company, where he thought “energy would be a minor concern.”

“But the more that I investigated, I became increasingly convinced that energy would be central to the growth of the cloud,” Janous says. Today at Microsoft he has a team of six — and he’s hiring.

As its sustainability effort grows more sophisticated, Microsoft is starting to think more like an energy company.

Janous says the energy industry is aligned with the IT sector in a way that creates an opportunity for a company like Microsoft, which understands how to operate in a world of connected devices. The goal is not to simply make Microsoft’s footprint more sustainable, but to deliver options to the marketplace to make the industry more sustainable as a whole.

“That’s the exciting part,” Janous says. “This is far bigger and more significant than Microsoft itself becoming green.

Today, Bernard says Microsoft is increasingly being called upon by thought leaders outside of the company to help others consider what’s possible.

Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist.

“The opportunity for us is to understand how many of the things we do as an operating business can be optimized internally and extended out to our customers,” he explains. “Taking what we do, experimenting with it ourselves and bringing it to the world. That’s our opportunity and our challenge.”

EDF’s Pfaff agrees: “Investing in renewable energy is another example of technology companies like Microsoft innovating and not accepting the status quo.”

To be successful, Microsoft’s sustainability efforts must continue to be driven by company leadership, as well as by individual employees, Bernard adds.

“Everyone should feel empowered to keep pushing this envelop,” he says. “It’s about a shared culture of innovation.”

Aimee Riordan
Microsoft News Center Staff