Microsoft data center pollutes, then wastes millions of watts to avoid paying fine

Microsoft likes to say it's green, but the New York Times reported that Microsoft data center generators were belching black smoke. The company was also reportedly not very environmentally friendly after over-estimating its utility usage. To avoid paying a $210,000 penalty, Microsoft's data center in Quincy wasted millions of watts of electricity.

Microsoft and other tech giants like to promote the environmentally-friendly idea of green IT. For example, Microsoft has promoted the top 10 business practices for environmentally sustainable data centers. Microsoft lawyer Eric Laschever said, "Data centers are the cloud," and when Microsoft Global Foundations Services Blog talked about the company's energy and efficiency evolution to power the cloud, it mentioned its cloud services like Bing, hosted services on Azure, Office 365, Xbox Live and Hotmail that are powered by data centers. The Redmond giant says when business applications are moved to the cloud, "energy use and the applications' carbon footprint per user are reduced by at least 30%." In fact, Microsoft says it is committed to achieving carbon neutrality beginning in fiscal year 2013, which began on July 1, 2012.

Going green is good, but it doesn't explain why "40 giant diesel generators" were belching black smoke at Microsoft's data center in the tiny town of Quincy, Washington, which has about 6,900 residents and a new web motto: "Where Agriculture Meets Technology!"

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The New York Times reported that as "Quincy's data centers grow, so do its diesel generators. The State Ecology Department says enough permits for generating power have been issued in Quincy to eventually pump out 337 million watts - roughly a third of the output of a major nuclear power plant." Although Microsoft isn't the only data center in town, it's the largest and has spread to four buildings.

Furthermore, "in 2010, during an expansion of the data center, Microsoft repeatedly ran the center on generator power," the Times continued. "The Microsoft spokeswoman, Andrea Platt, said the company was forced to rely on the generators 'at certain times' that year because the utility needed to perform work on a substation. The utility, however, said its documents indicated that Microsoft asked to be disconnected from the grid."

Let's note that earlier this month, Microsoft Utility Architect Brian Janous reported, "We are currently exploring alternative backup energy options that would allow us to provide emergency power without the need for diesel generators, which in some cases will mean transitioning to cleaner-burning natural gas and in other cases, eliminating the need for back-up generation altogether."

When setting up shop in Quincy, the utility company required Microsoft to estimate the minimum amount of electricity its data center would use. If it didn't use what it promised, then Microsoft would be required to pay a fine. But the New York Times reported:

In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for overestimating its power use, Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show. Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an "unnecessarily wasteful" way until the fine was substantially cut, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

The NYT article states, "All residential and small commercial accounts in Quincy consumed an average of 9.5 million watts last year, while Microsoft and Yahoo used 41.8 million watts, the utility said." Yahoo overestimated as well, but paid nearly $95,000 in penalties. Conversely, "Microsoft threatened to waste tremendous amounts of power by simply running giant heaters for no purpose, according to utility officials who said they were briefed on the matter by Microsoft, unless the penalty was largely forgiven. The idea was to burn the power fast enough to move closer to the forecast before year's end."

While Microsoft has explained that "every watt matters," the NYT reported, "Documents related to the case and interviews with utility officials show that Microsoft started burning roughly an additional five million to seven million watts - well over half of the consumption of the entire town of Quincy - in mid-December." In the end, the utility board voted to waive all but $60,000 of Microsoft's penalty.

Quincy is not the only place where Microsoft server farms reportedly polluted. In California, during 2008 and 2009, Microsoft was under an "Air Toxics 'Hot Spots' Program" review for all those diesel emissions with the potential "to cause cancers." Merging technology with environmental responsibility is important and something we should all care about, but the five-page, thought-provoking Times article makes it seem like strong-arming Microsoft is much less green than it publicly likes to seem.

While this may lead some advocates for the environment to think Microsoft is a bit evil, Microsoft says Google is the evil one. Last week while the dump IE campaign was going strong, Microsoft launched a new Google-is-an-evil-privacy-breacher ad campaign targeting Safari users.

The ads warned Safari users, "Google may have recently tracked you even though it promised it would not." The solution, of course, is to stop using Google and start using Bing. "Better yet, make Bing your homepage" suggested the ad. The Next Web also noted, "Unfortunately, Microsoft can't get this landing page to appear when Safari users actually visit Google, which is where it would really be useful."

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