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How Microsoft is trying to reduce the environmental impact of its cloud

When most people think of the cloud, abstract images of their data in some ephemeral space "off-device" likely pops into their minds. Enormous data centers housing thousands of servers dominating landscapes and demanding incomprehensible amounts of electricity around the clock probably does not come to mind.

The Information-Communication-Technology (ICT) ecosystem that drives the internet, big data and cloud needs a lot of power to stream data to our personal and enterprise devices continuously. We often think of the battery efficiency of devices, such as the 25 hours of power Qualcomm claims for new Always Connected PCs (ACPCs). However, in a connected world where data is consistently pumped from data centers across networks to billions of devices all day every day, the cost of the electricity (and the resources to produce it) to facilitate those activities must be considered.

According to a 2013 report, the world's ICT annual consumption of electricity was equal to that of Japan and Germany combined. Additionally, though we associate power consumption with charging our devices, streaming one hour of video a week consumes more electricity than two refrigerators do yearly. When we think of Microsoft's cloud computing investments like xCloud game streaming, Office 365 and edge computing, its impact on environmental resources like the coal and water needed to produce the terawatt-hour of electricity that sustains ICT becomes dreadfully clear.

Coal makes the internet go around

Coal is the world's single most important source for electricity. Most people don't think about how streaming movies, using Skype and Office 365 or Microsoft's xCloud game streaming service will impact our finite coal resource. Our devices tethered to a wall by a power cord is the scope of most people's understanding of how their devices consume electricity. However, wireless networks are the invisible cord connecting our devices to the data centers miles away that are pouring vast amounts of electrical power into the ICT constantly. And most of this electricity is produced by coal.

As more devices become connected, the challenge companies like Microsoft face is building technology that keeps pace with efficiently handling power consumption. To date, the exponential increase in connected devices has outpaced efforts toward environmental conservatism even though Microsoft reports 100 percent carbon neutrality (opens in new tab) since 2012.

This is concerning because 5G networks are currently being deployed with the projection of adding tens of billions of personal and embedded Internet of Things (IoT) devices of various form factors. As 5G expands, Microsoft's IoT strategy will put increasingly enormous demands on data centers that will be required to stream data to the intelligent edge and billions of IoT computers around us. Consequently, the already efficiency-challenged systems will be burdened with higher electricity, and ultimately, coal demands. Wind and solar power are unlimited resources that Microsoft is investing in to reduce its use of coal by 75 percent by 2030 (opens in new tab). Developing renewable resource strategies is key to sustaining the expanding infrastructure of the ICT.

Cry me a (Columbia) river

Despite Microsoft's efforts, there are still concerns. During Microsoft's 2018 annual shareholders meeting, John Osbourne, a physician, spoke in support of Columbia River Tribes and First Nations. He expressed a concern that companies like Microsoft built data centers and accessed dams to harness cheap hydropower to power those centers, which negatively impacted what was once a thriving salmon fishery.

He expressed the impact this has had on the indigenous people that live in that area and petitioned Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella (recently named best CEO in the U.S. (opens in new tab)) to do something to "right these historic wrongs." Osbourne shared that he made the same petition of Amazon's, the world cloud leader, CEO.

Nadella responded that in other areas where poor communities surround its data centers, Microsoft brought high-speed broadband that provided access to health and education resources. He claimed the same could be done for these tribal people. Nadella said:

We should definitely take a look at what you brought up with the Columbia River and the native communities there and we definitely will do so.

Bringing broadband to these communities is commendable. However, the environmental impact of these data centers and the resources they drain to provide connectivity are exacerbated rather than reduced by increasing the internet's footprint. I am not advocating not connecting these communities, but that Microsoft and others keep their eyes on the issues Osbourne mentioned. Ironically, giving these communities something they didn't ask for as compensation for what was taken from them is reminiscent of the historic abuses of and displacement from their land endured by their ancestors.

The scene behind our screens

Microsoft's purchase of 75 acres in Quincy, Wash., in 2012 along the Columbia River, where it etched its massive data center into the landscape, impacted the environment in one way. The pollution from 40 large diesel backup generators near an elementary school did damage in another. Microsoft has made progress (opens in new tab) toward its 2030 goal to reduce its environmental impact since. Microsoft is one of the biggest green buyers of energy in the U.S., and its A.I. for earth (opens in new tab) initiative helped partners use resources more efficiently.

Still, Microsoft's ambitious cross-platform cloud strategy requires massive data centers to power the services we access daily. So the next time you stream an hour worth of video, imagine the resources that are being expended behind the screen, miles away, in a data center. Visualize the electricity expended, the coal burned and land consumed to sustain our modern conveniences, and then ask yourself, "What else can Microsoft do to reduce its impact on the environment?"

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

25 Comments
  • And yet there's just about no effort to build in places like Manitoba or Quebec Canada where abundant hydro power is the established norm. the only investment I've seen is the Epic health care datacenter at the end of my street in Winnipeg, a acre sized Azure facility with no external signage to clue in the neighbors as to what it is.
  • Microsoft has a data center in Quebec City and a few in Toronto. The Quebec City one you can imagine is powered by Hydro-Québec. The Toronto one however I'm not sure if it's Hydro One or another utility company.
  • This statement: "streaming one hour of video a week consumes more electricity than two refrigerators do yearly" is ridiculous. The battery in my laptop will allow me to stream many hours of video. That same battery will not power my refrigerator for more than a minute. Even if you're considering the power consumed by the servers\switches\etc that deliver that stream to my laptop, it still makes no sense. A server doesn't require that much power and it serves 100s or 1000s of streams all at once.
  • ... You do know that a single laptop isn't as complex as a server since it has to deliver the product to much people at once while be able to keep it up for a very long time, don't you?
  • If you said, "a data center streaming video for one hour a week consumes more power than a fridge consumes in two years", then you may be correct. Jason is confused. For you and millions of people to receive one hour of video a week from an endless list of titles, does require a huge data center pumping out lots of data and consuming lots of electricity. But if the data center only had to pump out one video stream that anyone can see, then the power requirements would be a lot lower. For instance, the power necessary to transmit a TV signal is high, but if you divide the power by the number of viewers, the per person power requirement would be low.
  • If you said, "a data center streaming video for one hour a week consumes more power than a fridge consumes in two years", then you may be correct. Jason is confused. Hi ddn123, Jason Ward is not confused.😃 Here is the broader context from which that quote was taken showing that it is the resources required from the data centers to facilitate the one hr/wk video stream to our devices that requires more electricity than two refrigerators do in a year: However, in a connected world where data is consistently pumped from data centers across networks to billions of devices all day every day, the cost of the electricity (and the resources to produce it) to facilitate those activities must be considered. According to a 2013 report, the world's ICT annual consumption of electricity was equal to that of Japan and Germany combined. Additionally, though we associate power consumption with charging our devices, streaming one hour of video a week consumes more electricity than two refrigerators do yearly. Now if you visit the inline link referenced to the 2013 report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power - An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem - https://www.tech-pundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Cloud_Begins_With_Coal.pdf?c761ac above you will see that it is not my claim, but one reported from within the industry. And if you take the further time to follow the footnote in that linked report you will find a detailed articulation of how that energy expenditure was calculated. I referenced the source in the text, as I reported its claim so that anyone could follow-up, as is the purpose if inline links, if anyone has further inquiries or doubts about reported data. Thanks for taking the time to comment😉
  • Its just a stupid article though those numbers are clearly for a server feeding hundreds or thousands of users so it should be for serving one hour a week of video to x number of users or just a straight x number of hours of video. Making it look like it isthe cost from one user is orders of magnitude out. About the cheapest fridge I can find costs $100 a year in electricity to run so this is saying it costs a minimum $200 dollars in electricity to stream an hour a week of netflix to me. Lets say even if half of that cost if for me at home and half for the servers it still gives netflix no margin for buying programming, equipment, staffing...
  • Did you expect a Jason Ward article to be factually sound? If anyone did, maybe they should read his gem on how 5G will give us all cancer.
  • Hi Jason, I actually work for Microsoft and actually deliver tours of our facilities. So I have a deep knowledge of what we're doing in this space. There are a few things you should consider. First, all of this data needs to run somewhere. Microsoft arguably has the most efficient datacenters on the planet. We measure power efficiency through an industry standard called Power Utilization Effectiveness (PUE) and our newest facilities like Quincy run somewhere near 1.07. This means that only 7% of power is wasted. Compare that to what our customers see in terms of PUE in their facilities and the really good PUE for them is around 1.4 - 1.6. Which means that 40% - 60% of their power is wasted. Second is that Microsoft is aggressively trying to get completely off of the coal and gas grid as soon as possible. We are carbon neutral today and have been since 2012. However, that just occurs by offsetting any dirty power consumption by investing in green grids... which we do today. Everywhere. We are pushing towards running off of fuel cells (methane via cow poop or landfill) as well as wind, solar, hydro, kinetic energy by waves in the case of our submarine facilities as well as geothermal. Finally, Microsoft takes this stuff extremely seriously because we know for a fact that power is not limitless. So we push push push to remove every efficiency wherever we can. Since this all has to run someplace, wouldn't you prefer it's someplace like what I've outlined above?
  • So, is the recent purchase of 300 + acres of land in Sweden part of Microsoft green grids?
  • Microsoft should build it's own nuclear power plant(s). It's safe energy. I am tired of all these climate alarmist jackwads trying to scare people into "going green" … First, in the 70s : AN ICE AGE IS COMING!
    that didn't work. Then in the 90's: GLOBAL WARMING!!
    that didn't work. Now it's : CLIMATE CHANGE!!
    Hey skippy… the climate is ALWAYS changing. The civilized world has done their part in 'reducing the problem' … now its time to force Central Asia and other polluted hellscapes to do theirs.
  • You should also include (1) the air we breath today is far cleaner than the air in 1970 and (2) CO2 emissions in the US are below levels in the late 1990s. My son born in 1997 will be the first generation of kids to enjoy a cleaner environment (during their lifetime) than his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and great great grandparents.
  • Yes, in some places of the world air quality has increased significantly (which is great, but even so there is still ways to go!) but clean air has little to nothing to do with climate change and global warming. Also, CO2 emissions in the US may be lower than in the late 1990s, but not by much, and globally they have increased rather considerably since then (mostly due to China's unprecedented growth in the 00's). Luckily, the past years have seen only very small growth to stagnation of emissions but it's only the very early beginning, and far, far more needs to be done.
  • Please teach your son to be a man and not an emo duogender punk SJW.
  • There is a difference between being a SJW and being stupid. I cannot understand how anyone can dismiss the extreme mess we are doing to our planet. Not going to argue, that's for sure. Another thing, what the hell is on some people minds to associate politics with this. This is no right or left discussion.
  • Yes, the climate is always changing, the problem is at which rate it's happening now. The temperature increase itself is maybe not even that problematic either, the bigger problems arise due to sea level rise and changes in the global currents, which make both devastating storms and droughts more likely.
    I think the change in terminology from global warming to climate change happened when it was realized that the main problem is not so much the temperature rise itself, but mostly other effects following from it, like the ones I've outlined above. This said, I think I do tend to agree about nuclear power somewhat. Climate change is a more urgent problem than nuclear waste and nuclear plants would probably only serve as a stopgap until fully clean alternatives are more developed and widespread. Until then, nuclear power can help us keep the greenhouse gas emissions low.
  • as long as your prices remain competitive....... I was wondering how the cloud is allowing more and more people to have to travel less to work....any idea the impact of that?
  • Microsoft has managed to reduce the environmental impact of their phone "platform" to almost zero! Android and iOS devices use way more total power (because there are billions of them in use)
  • Off subject, Jason, but one month using Android, and this is my take... Apps are cool, and modern devices are cool... Android is stupid. 😑 It's a completely unsenergystic mess. I'm almost wondering if I should've tried an iPhone. The luster is fading FAST. I miss the refinement of Windows Phone...Switching is inevitable, but when you do you will still dream of Andromeda... I bet you that one month after you get your Android device your first editorial will read "The perfect device; Andromeda, with Android apps"... Now, I see why people have been suggesting this, and soon you will be a believer, as well. 😉
  • Lol...though off topic comments a STRONGLY discouraged, 😉 thanks for the feedback. I suppose investment in an affordable Android option as has been advised rather than plunking a grand on a Note is the wisest course to test the waters😉 Now, say something about this article's topic!!! LOL 😃
  • There is a reason Georgia Power is building a nuclear power plant. It has something to do with data centers, a growing city called Atlanta and a desire to reduce coal consumption.
  • Well said Jason, almost all people do not think holistically. That's understandable hence the saying "out of sight and out of mind". In regards to Microsoft's response about bringing broadband to rural areas and other areas. Reeks of lack of empathy, then again his "lesson" on empathy was a response from a job interviewer. That example is going to haunt him and his response shows he is only thinking of profits, earth be damned. Which is poor messaging and another PR disaster. What he should have said they will make investments in clean energy generation, this b.s of moving off coal by 2030 is what politicians say. Prime example is the NHS will get xyz billions by 2022, meanwhile the Health service crumbles due to pay structures and brexit. Due to a recent incident a family member had to spend time in hospital, across him the poor bloke had to hold his own IV because the hospital had no IV stands! A hospital in a major city doesn't have enough funding to buy IV stands.... smh. Microsoft have the talent, engineering know how and financial resources to make a major impact in preventing climate change from the tipping point. We only have 12 years before climate change runs away from us for several generations. Being able to charge electronic devices less and less will make a significant dent on the demand for electricity.
  • Lol. I like the way you write. Where are you from??
  • Thanks Jason for this article. It is really important for people to understand the impact computing has on our environment. I myself am fully aware of these issues. But I still love to use cloud based services. I feel like those people that need to justify stealing copyrighted music and movies. I have to make up some explanation for the dissonance of understanding the important of climate change, how data centers gobble up electricity, and how that electricity is mostly not green, but at the same time enjoy using cloud based services as a core part of my life. One of my explanations is that it is probably more green to move data than it is to move physical stuff, though I'm not a hundred percent sure of that. The thing is we are moving more data than ever, and for rather frivolous reasons. Did you watch the PBS Frontline two part episode on Facebook that aired recently? It paints a depressing picture about the manipulation Facebook has had on the public. I get sad when I think about this. I joined a career in computing to make the world work more efficiently. What has happened is computing is largely just making us stare at screens more. This is not good for energy use and our mental health.
  • Actually...what I'm more worried about, and what we should all be more concerned about is the impact that Crypto-mining farms are having on our environment. There's no regulations holding them back, and they suck just as much if not more energy than mircosoft's data centers....