Farm Town Upset About Microsoft Data Center's Pollution, Waste
September 24, 2012 3:21 PM
According to report Microsoft wasted millions of watts of power to avoid a fine for misreporting its needs
The New York Times
is offering up a
on the small town of Quincy, Washington and its residents' frustrations with Microsoft Corp. (
I. Small Town, Big Hopes
Increasingly large tech companies
like Microsoft and Apple
, Inc. (
) are looking to position data centers in small rural towns that offer convenient access to local tax breaks and plentiful power. For Microsoft, in 2007 that meant locating to Quincy, a small farm town of 6,900 along State Route 28.
For the town of Quincy, this seemed like a sure-win proposition. So they rolled out the red carpet with the local utility --
Grant County Public Utility District
hydroelectric power from dams
on the Columbia River at a rate of 2.5-3.8 cents/kilowatt-hour, well below the national average of 6-7 cents/kilowatt-hour. The rate was good for 7 years. Microsoft also got large (the article does not specify precise numbers) tax breaks.
And in some ways things have paid off. Microsoft's new data center -- which joins Dell, Inc. (
) and Yahoo! Inc. (
) data centers in the county -- has brought in $3.6M USD in taxes for 2012, even with the breaks. While landowners didn't get the windfall profits for the 75-acres of bean farms Microsoft bought to build its new data center on, they do now have repaved roads and a new library, thanks to the extra tax revenue.
Tim Culbertson, who was the general manager of the local utility back in 2007 recalls early optimism, commenting, "You’re talking about one of the largest corporations. You’re talking Microsoft and Bill Gates. Wow!"
II. Microsoft: a Demanding House-Guest
But tensions have risen in the town over Microsoft's tough power demands.
Culbertson claims that instead he was met with a frustrating "level of arrogance" from the tech giant. He comments, "Microsoft had lot of expectations. Early on, I don’t think it was as cooperative as it could have been."
For Microsoft stakes were high -- its
has been heavily served out of the Quincy data center. Hence it was crucial to produce enough power and consistency to meet the demand for steady cloud service.
The new data center powers Bing, Microsoft's search engine.
Frustrated by the town's slow construction of a 48 million watt substation for it -- equivalent to the electricity necessary to power 29,000 average U.S. homes -- Microsoft demanded $700,000 USD in reimbursements.
And there were also clashes over Microsoft's diesel power backup generators. In its rush to push the project through, the Washington State
Department of Ecology
approved permits for 24 on-site generators, each capable of generating two million to three million watts.
In backup power mode this was no real problem, but in 2010 the generators reportedly spewed a large level of particulate pollution (smog) when Microsoft ran them nearly continuous. Microsoft claimed the utility asked it to do so during a substation upgrade, but the utility claims Microsoft is lying, saying that
requested to be temporarily taken off the grid.
Microsoft, which has run afoul of Californian regulators for its diesel generators, this year received permission to expand its total number of generators to 37. A group called Microsoft-Yes; Toxic Air Pollution-No is challenging the new permits in an appeal to the state
Pollution Control Hearings Board
. Led by a retired school-teacher and environmental access, the group hopes to block Microsoft's expansion plans.
Yahoo ran its backup generators for only 65 hours in 2010, while Microsoft ran its generators for 3,615 hours.
III. Wasting Power
A final bone of contention is Microsoft's wasteful defiance of a utility fine. Utilities regularly request forecasts from their biggest customers to match production with demand. If those forecasts don't match up, they charge there super-users fines.
Microsoft and Yahoo both surprisingly overestimated their power use. When they were order to each pay tens of thousands in fines Yahoo paid its $94,608 USD penalty without question. But Microsoft stood its ground, refusing to pay the $210,000 USD fine requested by the utility.
It vowed to simply waste power to meet the quota, saying it had to do so because of the utility's punitive policies. It commented in a letter, "By staff estimate. Microsoft could incur approximately $70,000 in power costs to avoid the $210,000 penalty, resulting in real savings of $140,000. Microsoft must make the decision on continuing to burn $70,000 worth of power in the next three days."
Microsoft vowed to waste power as a way to avoid a fine for overestimating its power needs.
[Image Source: Treehugger]
After Microsoft made good on its threat to begin wasting millions of watts, the utility backed down. It begrudgingly slashed the fine to $60,000 USD in a bid to convince Microsoft to stop what it admitted was a "commercially unproductive" and "unnecessarily wasteful" use of power.
Microsoft calls the conflict "a one-time event that was quickly resolved". But some in Quincy are growing frustrated with their new unruly neighbor. Randall Allred, a utility commissioner and local farmer, comments, "For a company of that size and that nature, and with all the ‘green’ things they advertised to me, that was an insult."
One can expect more clashes between Microsoft and the locals as the construction of the new diesel generators heats up.
"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch
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