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Meet Microsoft’s New Data Center Sustainability Chief

MicrosoftMicrosoft has big plans for cloud computing. It wants to build “the most hyperscale public cloud that operates around the world in more regions than anyone else,” which involves big investments in data centers — and has the potential to exponentially grow Microsoft’s carbon and water footprints.

In addition to using massive amounts of energy — Lux Research says data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually — data centers guzzle huge amounts of water to support their cooling needs.

To help address these and other data center sustainability issues, Microsoft created a new position, director for datacenter sustainability, and hired former Starbucks director of environmental affairs, Jim Hanna, to the post.

Environmental Leader caught up with Hanna to discuss his plans for improving Microsoft’s data center sustainability. Below are his edited comments.

Q: What environmental sustainability lessons learned do you bring from Starbucks?

A: The key lesson I bring from Starbucks is the ability and the mandate for large companies to use our scale for good. The unique role played in taking environmental innovation to a global scale is at the heart of Starbucks and Microsoft’s sustainability missions, whether this means focusing on sustainably sourcing coffee beans from 20 million farmers around the world or meeting the massive demand for public cloud services with a growing fleet of global datacenters powered by renewable energy.

Q: What is your strategy to improve Microsoft’s data center sustainability?

A: This focus on growing the cloud means that we are making big investments in our data centers, where we are increasingly focused on sustainability. This includes making smart decisions about the impact of site choice and location, improving efficiency, lessening our environmental impact and powering our data centers with renewable energy.

We are making investments across Microsoft to help us achieve these goals, including working with our utility partners on renewable energy and developing pilot projects that better integrate clean energy into our servers. We are also expanding our team of experts focused on these issues.

Q: How much does the company expect to invest to make this happen? And how soon do you expect to see a return on investment?

A: The company is already investing substantially in our overall sustainability efforts. In fact, as part of our ongoing commitment to renewable energy and our carbon program, we invest more than $20 million per year.

We’re already seeing a substantial return on investment through our carbon fee in particular. Through our work on carbon and our carbon fee program, we have reduced our company-wide emissions by 7.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through investments in efficiency, green power and carbon offset community projects; purchased more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of green power; and improved the lives of more than 6 million people through carbon offset community development projects around the world. Through the use of software, we’ve cut energy use at our existing 125-building Redmond campus by about $2 million per year through our Energy-Smart Buildings initiative.

Q: Data centers are major energy users. What is Microsoft’s plan to improve energy efficiency and invest in renewable energy?

A: While Microsoft’s global operations have been carbon neutral since 2012, we continue to seek out new and innovative ways to enhance access to renewable power sources, both for Microsoft and for our customers.

Just this month, we announced the launch of an innovative public-private partnership between Microsoft, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Dominion Virginia Power that will bring 20 megawatts of new solar energy onto the grid in Virginia. Our decision to purchase and retire the green attributes from this new solar project is consistent with how Microsoft approaches all our renewable energy purchases, and is a core aspect of our corporate commitment to environmental sustainability.

This new project builds on the success of our more traditional power purchase agreements that we have used to supply clean energy to Microsoft’s data centers, like the 175-megawatt wind project in Illinois and 110-megawatt wind project in Texas.

Q: Data centers also consume massive amounts of water for cooling. As cloud computing skyrockets and water scarcity worsens in many places globally, what technologies and strategies is Microsoft using to cut water use?

A: We have been able to reduce the need for water-cooling by designing air-cooled data centers that utilize outside air-cooling in Dublin, Virginia, and Quincy, Washington. These data centers are designed to use only 1 to 3 percent of the water needed in a traditional data center — and with no wastewater.

Q: In your role, will you be working with other companies to make data centers more sustainable?

A: At Microsoft, we work with partners around the world to discover and implement innovative ways to transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future for our planet. In November, we joined RE100, a collaborative initiative of influential businesses committed to 100 percent renewable electricity.

We see tremendous opportunity for Microsoft and our growing ecosystem of partners to work with governments and organizations globally to leverage the power of cloud, big data, mobile and social technologies to accelerate the wave of innovation that will transform society’s understanding of and interaction with our natural environment.

Don’t miss our Environmental Leader 2016 Conference in June.

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