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One of the biggest cloud data centers in the country will now be driven primarily via alternative energy

A new 20-year agreement to purchase the output of a 175-megawatt wind farm in Pilot Hill, Illinois was announced this week by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), marking its second major 100+ megawatt commitment in under a year.  The Pilot Hill Wind Project, operated by the Électricité de France S.A.'s (EPA:EDF) "EDF Renewable Energy" subsidiary, is located roughly 60 miles south of Chicago and will give Microsoft Chicago data center the equivalent of 70,000 homes worth of electrical power, at peak capacity.
I. One of Microsoft's Biggest Data Centers Goes Green
The Chicago data center is one of ten major content data centers Microsoft listed in the U.S. in a recent blog.  (Other locations include Atlanta, Geor.; Miami, Flor.; New York City, New York; Washington D.C.; Dallas and San Jose, Texas; Los Angeles, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash.)
The effort comes as Microsoft finds itself midway through the second year of its push towards "carbon neutrality".  Masterminded by its environmental strategist Rob Bernard the "simple" plan is described as: “Be lean. Be green. Be accountable.”

Fenton wind farm
The Pilot Hill wind farm project, will provide Microsoft's Chicago data center with most of its power budget.

Much like his company's rival Google Inc. (GOOG), Microsoft's Bernard believes that Microsoft's internal effort can one day allow it to offer new kinds of energy efficiency services such as home power savings technology, support for power-saving at third party data centers, and energy-saving technology for the grid.

He comments:

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.  Taking what we do, experimenting with it ourselves and bringing it to the world. That’s our opportunity and our challenge.  Everyone should feel empowered to keep pushing this envelop.  It's about a shared culture of innovation.

In opting to go carbon neutral, he's given Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise division a particularly tough challenge.  Under his scheme each Microsoft division is accessed an internal "carbon tax" based on its emissions footprint -- primarily from electricity used and employee air travel.
As one of the world's biggest cloud service providers, Microsoft has long been migrating its data centers towards greater energy efficiency.  Still, the Cloud and Enterprise division has traditionally consumed a massive amount of power.  With that power comes a major cut of Microsoft's revenue (as it's one of Microsoft's most lucrative divisions), but managers are eager to find cost-efficient ways to shrink the footprint inside this power-hungry division, freeing up more money for cloud technology spending.
II. A More Energy Efficient, Flexible Cloud
To get there they've brought in fresh talent like Brian Janous, a veteran energy consultant, who now serves as Microsoft's energy director.  He overseas a team of six energy engineering specialists, and is actively recruiting more members.
Mr. Janous was crucial in brokering the new wind deal, which follows the November 2013 announcement of an agreement to purchase 110 megawatts of power from the Keechi Wind Farm Project.  Currently under construction, that Texas wind farm will provide power to Microsoft's San Antonio, Texas data center.  Now its Chicago data center -- one of its largest in the country -- will get a similar boost.

Keechi wind farm
Microsoft announced a major wind farm contract last November in Texas.

The energy director describes:

[Originally I thought] energy would be a minor concern [for Microsoft].  But the more that I investigated, I became increasingly convinced that energy would be central to the growth of the cloud.

The evolution of the energy sector  is toward more distributed energy resources.  Microsoft is focused on transforming the energy supply chain for cloud services from the power plant to the chip.  Commitments like Pilot Hill ensure a cleaner grid to supply energy to our datacenters.

[The ability to inspire the IT industry to go green,] that’s the exciting part.  This is far bigger and more significant than Microsoft itself becoming green.
Microsoft Azure Data Centers
Microsoft has ten major data centers in the U.S.; two will soon receive a substantial portion of their power from wind energy.

The deal is a big win for EDF who has been gradually expanding its alternative energy portfolio in the U.S., Asia, and Europe.  Comments 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.

Investing in renewable energy is another example of technology companies like Microsoft innovating and not accepting the status quo.

The wind farm is schedule to be completed in 2015 and will provide Microsoft with power regionally through 2035.
III. Project Joins Rich Portfolio of Alternative Energy and Conservation Research Efforts and Investments
Microsoft's current alternative energy portfolio also includes a partner project with the University of Texas at San Antonio aimed to develop small-scale generator turbines that can handle a flexible array of fuels including natural gas or biodiesel.  These turbines could offer a cost-effective replacement to today's backup diesel generators which remain relatively costly, polluting, and noisy.
Just miles away from Google's headquarters Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif. facility is home to a major solar project, with Microsoft installing 480 kilowatts worth of capacity -- 2,288 solar panels.  The 2,600-employee campus has seen the solar roofing provide roughly 15 percent of its power consumption, on average.
Microsoft also has a number of fuel cell efforts.  Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) group's Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems (REBELS) program, Microsoft recently teamed up with Redox Power Systems LLC, and the University of Maryland to test a bleeding edge flexible fuel cell design.

Microsoft Mountain View
Microsoft's Mountain View campus is covered in power-generating solar panels.

Microsoft also has a number of fuel cell efforts.  Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) groups's Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems (REBELS) program, Microsoft recently teamed up with Redox Power Systems LLC, and the University of Maryland to test a bleeding edge flexible fuel cell design.
Redox Power cell
Microsoft has partnered with Rediox Power Systems, a company who makes the Redox Power Cube, a fuel cell stack system.  The stack packs about 4 times the power per volume as the Bloom Box.  It also costs less to make, is nearly 10 percent more efficient (on paper), and weighs 50 percent less.

The project will test the "Redox Power Cube", which claims to offer 1/10th the cost of rival designs of comparable power and 1/10th the space of those rival designs -- such as the Bloom Box from Bloom Energy.  If it lives up to its claims, that would indicate that for the first time, a fuel cell provider might have a superior solution, cost wise to traditional on-site diesel generators.
Microsoft also has a joint project with FuelCell Energy Inc. (FCEL) and the University of Wyoming – co-funded by the state of Wyoming.  That project is exploring using wastewater (feces-rich water from sewage) as a source natural gas for fuel cells.  The FuelCell energy system Microsoft is testing is a 300 KW stack, roughly the size of a shipping container.  It's comparable to the Bloom Energy Server in most regards, but likely inferior to the new Redox Power system.

FuelCell Energy
A similar 300 kW stack from FuelCell Energy is deployed on the campus of Yale University.
[Image Source: Yale University]

In Feb. 2014, Microsoft showed off an all-in-one self-contained server rack and fuel cell power system, in collaboration with the National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC) at UC Irvine (UCI). 
While these alternative and flexible fuel efforts comprise some of Microsoft's 20+ major carbon offset investments/projects, it also has several socially conscious initiatives, as well.  In Africa and South America -- home to some of the world's richest wildlife populations -- Microsoft is working with locals and indigenous people to improve the standard of living and avoid deforestation.
One project involves a major conservation effort in Brazil's Acre state.  Microsoft and its partners on the Acre state project are working to conserve rainforest along the Purus River, a Brazilian tributary of the Amazon River that stretches across the western-most province of Brazil.  The project is aimed at preventing deforestation by teaching local and indigenous people sustainable alternatives such as basic technology services and sustainable agriculture.  A similar project in Kenya is dubbed "Mt. Kenya".

Microsoft Purus River project
Microsoft is working to conserve the Amazon.

Last, but not least in January Microsoft joined the Open Compute Project, following Facebook Inc.'s (FB) lead.  Like Facebook, Microsoft has "open sourced" key elements of its server technology, showing deployers how to boost power efficiency by 15 percent while cutting the time of installation and costs by 50 and 40 percent, respectively.

Source: Microsoft

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Better be careful
By inighthawki on 7/15/2014 8:19:54 PM , Rating: 3
Such a power requirement will use up all the wind, then we'll run out!

RE: Better be careful
By althaz on 7/15/2014 10:53:34 PM , Rating: 2
I know you were kidding. But in fact there are many models that show that if we were to rely entirely on wind power (which we will never do), it would play absolute havoc with the climate.

RE: Better be careful
By inperfectdarkness on 7/16/2014 1:41:22 AM , Rating: 1
You mean the same ones that say that CO2 emissions are causing the earth to heat up?

Tell me again about how infallible your models are.

RE: Better be careful
By althaz on 7/16/2014 2:20:25 AM , Rating: 1
I'm confused by your post. CO2 emissions ARE causing the earth to heat up (alarmingly quickly).

Also, even a child should be able to realize that if you take energy out of the weather system of the planet (which is what wind turbines do), there will be changes to the weather. Moreover we are better able to experiment on this to refine our models.

Something like the wind farm in this article won't have a meaningful effect (except locally), but if we started using wind turbines for all of our power needs, the weather patterns across the globe would be drastically altered.

The weather isn't magic, it's the transfer of energy. If you take a huge chunk of that energy (and it would take a HUGE chunk of that energy to power humanity), then naturally the dynamics of those energy transfers will change.

RE: Better be careful
By althaz on 7/16/2014 2:25:49 AM , Rating: 2
NOTE: I'm not saying we shouldn't start using wind power as much and as soon as possible, because we should as carbon dioxide is a FAR greater concern and having enough wind turbines around the world to worry about this is something that's probably quite, quite far off.

RE: Better be careful
By Dorkyman on 7/16/2014 12:12:40 PM , Rating: 4
Bummer that the warming trend has essentially stopped for over a decade.

Blows away the models and conventional thinking and all that.

Seriously, my takeaway is that one thing very obvious is that climate is MUCH more complex than we realized. A second realization is that drastic, multi-trillion-dollar changes in standards of living would have a trivial impact on average temps. IOW, we will learn to adapt to whatever changes take place, something humans are really good at.

RE: Better be careful
By PaFromFL on 7/16/2014 8:25:24 AM , Rating: 2
I call BS on the claim that ground-level wind power generation could have a significant effect on the climate. Ground-level wind power is normally dissipated by very minor heating of the surface of the earth/vegetation/ocean through turbulence and water wave generation. The total fraction of practical wind power generation sites is a very small fraction of the total surface of earth. Most of the heavy lifting for weather patterns is done by upper level winds and ocean currents.

Local ventilation of hot (urban, geyser) and cold (snow pack, lake ice) areas might be affected. If the oceans and jet streams were choked by windmills, then global weather patterns might be changed. Note that changing global weather patterns is not always a bad thing. On average, life has been much better when the earth is hot than when it is cold.

RE: Better be careful
By Solandri on 7/16/2014 11:53:59 AM , Rating: 2
Wind power is basically solar energy that's been converted to heat gradients by the surfaces the sunlight fell upon. The sun bathes the earth with approximately 190,000 terawatts of power. A good fraction of that is reflected back into space, and some is captured by plants and plankton. But most of it ends up creating thermal gradients which causes wind (as well as radiating energy back into space).

The world uses about 150,000 terawatt-hours of energy in a year. On an instantaneous basis that's 17 terawatts, or around 0.01% of the solar energy hitting the earth. So no, supplying all our power requirements with wind won't have any appreciable affect on the weather.

Incidentally, this is why I don't believe in building solar panels for general power generation unless it can come down dramatically in price. We are much better off letting plants and the earth's surface capture and concentrate that solar energy for free, rather than waste money manufacturing panels that have to cover a large area in an attempt to concentrate it ourselves.

RE: Better be careful
By Dorkyman on 7/16/2014 12:18:01 PM , Rating: 2
Agree in general, but I am intrigued in general by how much the cost of generating electricity via solar panel has plummeted in the past two decades. It really is fascinating to me just how productive these panels have gotten. Certainly they will be extremely useful in the near future for applications far removed from the grid.

RE: Better be careful
By Mint on 7/17/2014 5:31:52 PM , Rating: 2
Price is getting insanely low now for solar. In China, panels are down to ~$0.50/W and aiming for $0.36/W by 2017. Next gen plants in the US are targeting $0.28/W:

Installation cost is the biggest monetary issue now as opposed to panels, and that will go away soon. The real issue is getting day-long cheap storage, but in the meantime we can use 5-hour storage (much cheaper) along with solar panels to cover at least the daytime/evening peak.

RE: Better be careful
By RustyTech on 7/16/2014 8:31:32 AM , Rating: 3
"if you take energy out of the weather system of the planet (which is what wind turbines do), there will be changes to the weather."

and then I LOLOLOL some more!
Thank you for making my day :)

RE: Better be careful
By atechfan on 7/16/2014 9:06:14 AM , Rating: 3
So we better stop building houses then, because a building with its broad, flat sides is going to disrupt the wind more than a turbine. Damn to pesky trees too, always stealing wind with their constant swaying.

RE: Better be careful
By tonyswash on 7/16/2014 9:24:12 AM , Rating: 1
I'm confused by your post. CO2 emissions ARE causing the earth to heat up (alarmingly quickly).

No climate changes in the last 100 years have exceeded the extent or rate of previous and recent climate changes.

It's been warmer in the very recent past. Evidence for this can be found for example in the medieval forest that have been recently revealed by retreating glaciers. These forests can be reliably dated to 460 and 250 years BP and show that in the recent past not only had glaciers retreated as much and more than the present but also that they had retreated long enough for forests to have grown.

Similarly there are the remains of old conifer forests that grew during the Medieval Warm period (ca AD 800–1300) in areas that are far north of the current northern tree line in areas which are currently tundra indicating much warmer conditions back then in the arctic and sub-arctic north.

Here are some link about this evidence.

The climate has changed at the same rate in the past.

Better electrons
By BernardP on 7/15/2014 10:50:15 PM , Rating: 3
Fact: Those electrons that know they have been produced by a wind turbine are simply better.

RE: Better electrons
By atechfan on 7/16/2014 9:04:38 AM , Rating: 2
Do better electrons make the servers faster?

RE: Better electrons
By Dorkyman on 7/16/2014 12:24:37 PM , Rating: 2
Only a little bit, and those electrons carry the guilt of knowing they've killed a bunch of eagles via propeller strikes. But they are comforted in the knowledge that they make coyotes happy, since coyotes love to dine on eagle.

It's a Circle of Life thing.

By Grimer21 on 7/15/2014 4:54:46 PM , Rating: 2
Wind energy is for the birds...

By atechfan on 7/15/14, Rating: -1
By GotThumbs on 7/16/2014 8:07:15 AM , Rating: 2

There ARE federal subsidies/exemptions for the Owners of the wind farm.

By FITCamaro on 7/16/2014 11:49:50 AM , Rating: 2
That $86/megawatt hour number in the first article is probably because we're effectively buying a lot of the turbines for them too. Entire wind farms are being built on US tax payers dollar. So that certain people can then make money on it. While eventually we're stuck with more expensive energy and all the debt that's a result of the government spending money frivolously.

He wasn't kidding when he said Cloud First!
By peterrushkin on 7/15/14, Rating: 0
By peterrushkin on 7/17/2014 1:05:45 PM , Rating: 2

Meanwhile in other news, lots of employees are being laid off....

"You can bet that Sony built a long-term business plan about being successful in Japan and that business plan is crumbling." -- Peter Moore, 24 hours before his Microsoft resignation

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