Microsoft’s Energy Practices in Quincy Under Fire

Not all of Microsoft’s dealings with Quincy utilities have been contentious. Last year the company teamed with local agencies to retool the local water treatment infrastructure, leasing a multi-million dollar water treatment plant built by Microsoft to the city of Quincy for just $10 a year. The plant will be retrofitted to allow waste water from the local farming community’s food processing plant to be used to cool the Microsoft data center. Local officials say the project will save millions of gallons of potable water for the local community.

There have been other municipal benefits. The presence of data centers from Microsoft, Yahoo, Sabey, Intuit, Dell and Vantage Data Centers has boosted Quincy’s property tax revenue from $815,000 in 2005 to a projected $3.6 million this year, the Times reported.

“The article uses what we believe are a few isolated situations to paint a negative picture of the relationship between big data center operators, including Microsoft, and the local community,” Janous wrote in a blog post responding to the Times’ coverage. “We are proud of our relationship with Quincy.  Microsoft has created over 50 good-paying permanent jobs in Quincy, and hundreds more construction jobs.  Our property taxes have helped fund community services, including an expansion of the local library and a new fire station.”

Generator Usage in Two States Draws Scrutiny

Microsoft’s operations of its diesel backup generators was also a key focus of Monday’s story in the New York Times, which reported that generator usage and diesel emissions had soared last year at data centers in Quincy and Santa Clara, Calif.

Diesel engine exhaust is a regulated pollutant, and can be toxic in high concentrations, so state regulators routinely review permits for generators. The growing number of diesel generators in Quincy generated debate in 2010 when Microsoft applied to add more generators for the second phase of its campus in Quincy.  The state ecology department conducted an evaluation of the health risks from diesel engine exhaust particulates, and found that the Microsoft expansion was not likely to impact public health.

The Tmes story examined how often Microsoft was using the generators in Quincy, and why.

“In 2010, during an expansion of the (Quincy) data center, Microsoft repeatedly ran the center on generator power,” writes James Glanz of The Times. “The utility … said its documents indicated that Microsoft asked to be disconnected from the grid. Several experts said in interviews that they found the episode confusing because data center designs typically anticipate expansions and allow construction to take place without disconnecting from the grid.”

The Times noted that Microsoft’s generators operated for a combined total of 3,615 hours in Quincy in 2010, compared to 65 hours for a nearby Yahoo data center. Microsoft said the generator activity was necessary to provision new data center space featuring a modular design it had not previously used.

“In August 2010, in coordination with our local public utility, we had to run our entire data center on generator power for several days so that our new modular data center could be connected to the substation,” said Microsoft spokesperson Andrea Platt. “We also saw higher-than-normal generator usage due to the installation, testing and commissioning of new generators for our new modular facility which went live in January 2011.”

Platt said Microsoft’s 3,615 hours of generator run time in 2010 remained below the 4,256 hours allowed by the company’s permit from the state Department of Ecology. In 2011 Microsoft’s generator usage in Quincy was reduced to 819 hours, or about 2 hours per generator per month, Platt said.

Infrastructure Upgrades in Santa Clara

The Times also reported that Microsoft’s Santa Clara data center was listed as one of the largest diesel polluters in the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for 2008 and 2009. The company said its increased generator usage in that period was caused by a two-year project to upgrade electrical infrastructure at the facility.

“This work required us to disconnect from the power grid and run on generator power at certain times while the electrical components were updated, to ensure the safety of work crews and provide uninterrupted service to our customers,” said Platt. “The remediation work was successfully completed in 2009. With the completion of the electrical remediation project, we are no longer in an emergency setting, and no longer using generator power extensively.” Platt said that in 2011, the Microsoft Santa Clara data center ran its generators for just 152 hours.

Belady reiterated Microsoft’s intention to reduce its reliance on generators because of their carbon impact, and said it has already eliminated diesel backup systems from two of its cloud computing facilities.

“Generators are expensive and costly to maintain and as such our goal is to not use them whenever possible, instead pushing resiliency into the software,” said Belady. “We are already doing this in Chicago, where our container bays are not backed up with generators. In addition, our newest phase in our Boydton, Virginia facility is designed without any generators, a reflection of more fully resilient applications running there. We will continue trending in this direction where more and more of our data centers will not use generators.”

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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  1. Steve

    The City of Houston does the same thing to residents. They ask them to conserve energy but them apply a penalty when each home owner does not use a certain amount they provisioned for. The whole system is backward and calling Microsoft out to make them look bad only supports the bad habits of the energy industry to get away with this behavior. Fix the real probblems in energy.

  2. sam 1

    This article is a worst hack job than the Times Article. There is no mention that the power is hydro generated hence it is Green Power. It was the utility that arbitrarily fined Microsoft for being good stewards and NOT using all the power they thought they would. Microsoft just called their bluff, when government agencies run a muck someone needs to shout out loud. I know all the green nuts will salivate at the Times and now this piece but they are using Hydro power of this data center, having the green nuts always nipping at your heals is just annoying and counter productive. Oh and another thing this all happened YEARS ago so what is the point now!

  3. This kind of thing should not become commonplace. Giving energy companies the power to trash others over this crap is ridiculous. The above comment from sam 1 even states that Microsoft uses hydro generated power. These kind of happens are setting a precedence that worries me.

  4. Cory

    Microsoft had 24 so called “back up” *diesel* generators for “emergency backup electrical power” or unspecified “maintenance purposes.” They later expanded to 37 generators. Microsoft repeatedly ran the facility on generator power. (DIESEL POWER) Yahoo had 65 hours in 2010 compared to Microsoft’s generators operating for a combined total of 3,615 hours that year of backup generator use. The Grant County Public Utility District fined Microsoft for using too little of their green hydroelectric power because they told Grant County how much they needed but didn’t come close to the expected forecast. So was Microsoft really being environmentally cautious/ friendly???