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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