Microsoft invests in next-gen energy technologies to power datacentres

Microsoft is investing in next-generation energy technologies such as microturbines and distributed generation for datacentre power

Microsoft is investing millions in next-generation energy technologies such as microturbines and distributed generation technologies to transform how its datacentres consume energy as it expands its datacentre infrastructure.

Distributed generation or onsite generation is a method of generating electricity from multiple, smaller energy sources rather than large centralised facilities such as a single nuclear power plants. Distributed generation helps datacentres draw power from many sources locally and hence reduce the environmental impact.

"Distributed generation represents a major shift in the energy sector that will dramatically change how datacentres operate," said Brian Janous, director of energy strategy at Microsoft.

The software giant has entered into a three-year agreement with the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) to research and develop distributed generation technologies.

“This is one of our first major research partnerships to use datacentres as a laboratory for next-generation energy technologies. Distributed generation will be an important part of how we power our datacentres as we continue to pursue Microsoft's energy strategy of transforming the energy supply chain,” Janous said.

Microsoft’s datacentre researchers and UTSA students will explore the new "fast-start generation" energy technologies such as microturbines to replace the diesel generators that are used during times of peak datacentre demand and grid outages.

According to Microsoft, widespread deployment of distributed generation will reduce energy losses, improve reliability and minimise the need for costly investments in new infrastructure.

Microsoft’s new datacentre projects

Microsoft is pumping in $1.1bn to build a second datacentre in Iowa state to expand its cloud services. Microsoft has received tax breaks from the Iowa state authorities for the project.

It is also building a new $250m energy-efficient datacentre in San Antonio. The new 256,000ft2 datacentre will be next to its existing larger datacentre in San Antonio. To have more control over the needed energy supply for the datacentre, Microsoft will address not just how electricity is used and distributed inside datacentres but also how consumption of electricity impacts the broader grid.

The company is also donating $1m to UTSA's SERI (Sustainable Energy Research Institute) to support the university's research into smarter and more efficient energy systems.

“Our objective is to transform the energy supply chain toward radically greater efficiency. We believe that the growth of distributed generation is inevitable; the era when the only game in town was centralised power generation is now over,” Janous said on Microsoft Datacenters blog.

But the distributed generation energy technologies will not replace the centralised electricity grids. “We see distributed generation as a complement to the traditional centralised model, if it is deployed in a manner that is optimised to the needs of the grid in concert with grid operators and utilities,” Janous added.

Distributed generation, although more sustainable, does not provide the economies of scale that centralised power facilities provide. With the research collaboration, Microsoft aims to make distributed generation more economically viable.

Microsoft’s new energy strategy comes at a time when environmental campaign group Greenpeace blames Microsoft as a company “taking steps toward a greener internet, but not leading the way” while lauding its cloud rival Google as a “green internet innovator”.

“Microsoft has thus far relied heavily on buying Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and carbon offsets, creating the appearance on paper of being clean but not altering its status quo supply of dirty electricity,” Greenpeace’s latest report read.

“Companies, such as Microsoft and Amazon, are not pulling their full weight to become sustainable, despite having massive potential,” Andrew Hatton, Greenpeace UK’s head of IT, previously told Computer Weekly.

But Janous argued that Microsoft is embracing energy's role in powering the cloud.

“In the past 12 months, we have made significant progress on an energy strategy that will reduce the resources required to deliver cloud services,” he said on the company blog. Microsoft entered long-term power purchase agreement with a 110MW (megawatts) wind farm in Texas. It is also investing in more energy-efficient datacentre technologies such as in-rack power generation and biogas-powered datacentres.

“These initiatives are bound together by our objective to transform the energy supply chain towards radically greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact," he added.


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