Microsoft: leading the way to a low carbon economy

Reading time: 5 minutes
15 April 2016

Already 100% powered by renewable electricity in its global operations, Microsoft is leading the way to a low carbon economy. Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist, tells us more.

Why did you want to become ‘100% renewable’?

"At Microsoft, we believe there is a clear and urgent need for society to address climate change, and we recognize that our responsibility begins with our own actions. We are working to consistently reduce our carbon footprint, and we are committed to taking significant action to shape our energy future by developing clean, low-cost sources and building a greener grid to supply energy."

How did you decide on your 100% goal and what did you do to reach it?

"In 2012 we made a commitment to becoming carbon neutral. We knew that driving company-wide accountability would be critical. So the environment team worked with senior leadership to get their support, and then we made our business divisions financially responsible for the cost of their emissions through a carbon fee. Switching to renewable electricity made business sense.

What have been your achievements so far?

"Once we had both the support of the company and the mechanisms in place, we bought renewable energy credits and carbon offsets, and invested in renewable energy projects like the Keechi Wind Project and the Pilot Hill Wind Project, to provide locally-sourced renewable electricity to nearby data centers. We also generate a small amount of electricity from solar panels covering the rooftops on our Silicon Valley campus.

"By matching the volume of our electricity consumption with renewable power investments, we have procured 100% renewable power for our global operations. These efforts have been recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership, which ranks us as the second largest green power purchaser for US operations."

What opportunities and challenges are you encountering?

"As Microsoft has transitioned from a software company to a mobile-first, cloud-first company, our energy footprint has changed. Data centers are critical to enabling and powering our cloud offerings, but they also consume a great deal of electricity. This is both our biggest challenge and opportunity – as a technology company we have great tools to use electricity more smartly.

"We endeavor to increase our direct purchasing of renewable electricity to power our operations. Unfortunately, in many parts of the US and around the world, renewables are still a very small part of the energy portfolio of local utility companies. The demand from companies like Microsoft and other RE100 corporate partners is outstripping the existing supply, and new projects take capital investment, political will and buyers to come online. Even then, it takes several years between striking an agreement and renewable electricity actually becoming available. We are a big customer with a growing need, which means we have the opportunity to address the challenge of bringing more clean energy on the grid. That is why we’re also working with others, through groups like RE100 and the Buyers’ Principles."

Why do you think it is important for companies to play a role in accelerating demand for renewable electricity and how can we get more companies to go 100%?

"The private sector accounts for around half of the world’s electricity consumption so together we can make a real difference. Collaborating with other companies sends a signal to utilities and suppliers that cannot be ignored, which will ultimately make renewable energy more affordable and accessible." 

Why do you think RE100 is a good initiative to join?

"We have been powered by renewables since 2014, but we believe there is still more that we can do to advance a low carbon, sustainable economy. By joining RE100, we have the opportunity to collaborate with other sustainability leaders, share best practices, and work collectively to drive change to achieve greater global impact. Together, we send a strong market signal to utilities that there is demand for more renewables on the grid, which should in turn lead to increased supply, benefitting both companies and the public."

How else are you helping to drive forward the transition to a low carbon economy?

"Our internal carbon fee model has been received with great enthusiasm and engagement throughout the company as teams drive down their carbon emissions.

"Our approach to sustainability is also integrated into the products and services we offer. We are driving sustainability efforts through IT and have shown that when organizations move applications to the cloud, the applications’ carbon footprint per user is reduced by at least 30%. Microsoft is working with customers in both the private and public sectors around the world to leverage cloud computing and smart grid technology to create a more sustainable future."

May 2016 update: Microsoft has committed to powering its datacenters with energy that is at least 50% wind, hydro and solar by 2018, and 60% early next decade. For Microsoft, this means moving beyond datacenters that are already carbon neutral to also having those datacenters rely on a larger percentage of wind, solar and hydropower electricity over time. Read more.

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