Microsoft Pledges to Emit ‘Zero Carbon’ By 2030

Taking another climate moonshot, Microsoft has set out to crack a problem that will require a complete rethink of the world’s electric grids.

Yevgeniy Sverdlik

July 15, 2021

7 Min Read
A Microsoft data center worker securing a rack of servers in place.
A Microsoft data center worker securing a rack of servers in place.Source: Microsoft video

Microsoft has made another big climate pledge. The company said Wednesday that it will work to power all its offices and data centers around the world with carbon-free energy 100 percent of the time by 2030.

This is a very different – and much larger – problem to solve than matching its global energy consumption by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable energy, a goal Microsoft last year set out to achieve by 2025. Its impossible to power facilities with carbon-free energy around the clock in most places around the world today. Google set out to solve this problem for its global operation last year, also making 2030 the deadline.

“Moving forward we will be innovating our energy purchasing contracting to help bring more zero carbon energy onto the grid and move more high carbon intensity energy off the grid, helping to rebalance the carbon intensity of any grid on which we operate,” Microsoft chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa and corporate VP, cloud and innovations, Noelle Walsh wrote in a blog post. “We will match our purchasing of zero carbon energy with our consumption on an hourly basis. And we will do so on the same grid systems into which we are already connected.”

This is also different from another pledge Microsoft made in 2020, which was to remove all the carbon the company will have emitted as a result of its operations in its entire history from the planet’s atmosphere by 2030.

Taking bold action carbon emissions isn’t just a matter of these companies’ own desire to do good. Investors and executives of corporations whose IT budgets Microsoft and Google’s cloud computing businesses compete for are increasingly conscious of their environmental impact. Outsourcing to a cleaner cloud provider helps those enterprises achieve their own sustainability goals.

“We’re seeing tremendous movement in the industry,” Michael Terrell, director of energy at Google, told DCK.

Terrell sits on the board of directors of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), an industry association consisting of about 200 large companies. “That’s 200 companies trying to break down barriers” to powering more of their operations with clean energy, he said. “And we’re just getting started. I think we’ll see a lot of movement.”

The efforts by Google and Microsoft signal a shift in thinking about clean energy purchasing. It’s a recognition that the predominant practice of simply investing in renewable generation without regard for where and when the energy is consumed doesn’t change consumption and emission patterns on dirty grids.

It’s also a recognition that energy sources deemed renewable are only part of the solution to carbon emissions. As a recent Google explainer on the subject put it, not all carbon-free energy technologies are renewable sources. Those that aren’t are things like “large-scale battery storage, advanced nuclear, green hydrogen, and carbon capture and sequestration…”

Microsoft’s Joppa and Walsh acknowledged how difficult the problem of 24/7 carbon-free energy is to crack. Not only is there not enough clean generation capacity being installed, electric grid infrastructure and energy market rules in most places around the world aren’t set up to deliver that energy when and where it’s needed.

Large-scale energy storage, one of the most promising technological solutions to the problem of intermittency of wind and solar, is “extremely immature,” they wrote.

Data Center Energy Demand-Supply Matching

The blog post emphasized “innovation” in how Microsoft purchases energy as a focal point in these efforts. One area of innovation is “temporal matching,” or tracking closely energy demand at a specific site (on an hourly basis) and delivering an equal amount of carbon-free energy to it.

The company said in November that it has designed a solution that will enable Vattenfall, the utility that will supply energy for its upcoming data center cluster in Sweden, to dynamically match the cloud region’s demand with clean energy in such dynamic manner.

Microsoft announced on Wednesday that it will also pilot a “24/7 renewable energy matching” solution by a company named FlexiDAO to do the same for one of its Amsterdam data centers.

It’s also developed a data tool for more precise estimation of the carbon reduction each clean-energy project on a grid (be it a wind farm, solar array, or large-scale storage) achieves. Microsoft built the tool together with REsurety and said it will pilot it in Texas.

The ways companies have been measuring the “decarbonization” impact of their clean energy investments to date “have relied on regional averages,” which leaves a lot of room for error, according to REsurety. The new Locational Marginal Emissions tool measures the impact of “each specific clean energy procurement, load-siting, or energy storage decision.”

Microsoft also highlighted its work with energy suppliers to secure power from large-scale renewable generation projects and structure these power purchase agreements in ways that more closely align generation with data center demand.

Carbon-Aware Workload Shifting, AI-Enabled Geothermal

While Google may be further along in these efforts than Microsoft, both companies are at a stage of casting as wide a net as possible in hopes of finding a combination of technologies and market and regulatory approaches that may work.

“We’re going to have to move the needle in all of these areas,” Google’s Terrell said. “It’s hard to say which one will get us the furthest towards 24/7 carbon-free energy.”

Google has been working on a technology that would enable it to shift compute workloads from data center to data center based on availability of carbon-free energy, for example. Its CEO Sundar Pichai said earlier this year that the company plans to start using this new platform for more than one third of its non-production workloads in 2022. No word so far on whether this could work for production workloads – in other words, most of them.

Another promising area is using AI to dramatically improve efficiency and productivity of geothermal power plants. Google is working on this together with a startup called Fervo, which is building what the tech giant described as a first-of-its-kind geothermal plant in Nevada, which will supply some energy for its data centers there.

Rethinking Data Center Energy Purchasing

As large energy buyers, hyperscalers like Google and Microsoft have a lot of sway over energy suppliers keen to secure big data center customers. They’ve been using this power in many cases to help achieve their clean-energy goals.

In one recent example, Google struck a 10-year power purchase agreement with AES, which requires the supplier to provide 90 percent carbon-free energy – measured on an hourly basis – for its data centers in Virginia. The deal is unique in that it makes the supplier responsible for figuring out how to deliver the kind of energy the client needs.

While an agreement like this is possible in Virginia, where customers can choose their energy suppliers, many markets around the world today wouldn’t allow it. This is one of the biggest challenges in achieving the 2030 target, because it requires negotiating with and lobbying each individual utility and market regulator to change their rules.

Electric Grids Must Be ‘Reinvented’

As Google put it in its explainer, the shift away from simply emitting carbon and compensating for it with investments in renewable generation and toward true, “absolute zero” carbon operations will require “work with policymakers, other energy buyers, and utilities to reinvent electric grids.”

That includes changing the types of generation on the grids, enabling more dynamic interplay between energy supply and demand (as exemplified by Microsoft’s projects in Sweden and Amsterdam, or Google’s workload-shifting efforts), and changing the boundaries of the grids, Terrell said.

More grids need to be “regionalized” to widen the choice of energy sources for customers, he explained. Some regional energy markets in the US, for example, include multiple states and can be treated as single power pools, making it easier for customers to balance their demand with supply of carbon-free energy. Most grids around the world are not regionalized.

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