Microsoft data centers in Quincy, Washington
Microsoft data center campus in Quincy, Washington (Source: Microsoft video)

Generator Permit Indicates Microsoft Plans Big Quincy Data Center Expansion

Microsoft has filed for permits to add 72 diesel generators at its Quincy, Washington, data center campus • The move signals a big capacity expansion at the campus is in the works • The application prompted state ecology regulators to call a public hearing • Microsoft has faced major opposition to installing generators in Quincy in the past

Microsoft, it appears, is planning to expand its already massive data center campus in Quincy, Washington -- a rural community about 150 miles east of its headquarters in Redmond.

The company has filed for permits to add 72 diesel backup generators and 136 cooling towers at the campus. The application shows that the company hasn't made enough progress in its search for a more environmentally-friendly backup-power alternative to generators announced six years ago.

"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," Brian Janous, then Microsoft's data center utility architect, wrote in a blog post at the time.

Not just the environment, but the company too would benefit from having that alternative. It's not easy to get that many big diesel engines approved these days.

Microsoft's Quincy data center campus currently occupies 270 acres and supports hundreds of megawatts of data center capacity. According to one report, the generators slated for installation will supply an additional 210MW of backup power. Because of regulatory concerns, they will be a lead concern as the company prepares for expanding its computing capacity there.

Because of diesel-associated pollution concerns, Microsoft's request to place the gensets at the site won't be rubber-stamped quickly. For one thing, the expansion will put the facility into a new air permitting category, which has prompted the state's Department of Ecology to open the floor for public comments and to schedule a public hearing on August 27 in Quincy.

Judging by how these things have gone in Quincy (and other places) in the past, the hearing may be a contentious one.

Microsoft has been down this road before. A permit to install backup generators at the facility issued in 2010 was quickly challenged by Patty Martin, who had been the town's environmentally active mayor in the 1990s. That process kept Redmond and its lawyers busy for a couple of years, until the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board finally overturned the challenge in 2012, with the caveat that the state's Department of Ecology place limits of the generators' use, both in fuel consumption and hours per year they could operate.

Both Microsoft and the regulatory agencies seem eager to avoid a similar brouhaha this go-round. For the current vetting process, Microsoft was required to complete a "health impact assessment" to evaluate potential health risks from increased emissions.

It has passed that hurdle. In a statement, the Department of Ecology said, "The assessment found that the data center will meet criteria intended to protect people and the environment if operated according to the permit." In addition, Microsoft will be required to submit an Air Operating Permit application within one year after receiving approval to install the new equipment.

Although Microsoft was first to build a data center in Quincy, back in 2007, it now has plenty of company in the area, which has become a popular place to build data centers due to a dependable and inexpensive supply of hydro-generated power. Data centers built by Yahoo! (now operating under Verizon's Oath brand), Dell, Seattle-based Sabey Data Centers, and Santa Clara-based Vantage Data Centers are all neighbors.

Until recently, Intuit had a presence in the area, but in July it sold the facility to wholesale data center provider H5. In 2016, Dallas-based CyrusOne purchased land suitable for a data center in the area, but has yet to build on it.

Microsoft spokespeople have not responded to a request for comment.

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