Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations

Datacenters have become the engine of transformation across every sector of our economy. But this engine requires a lot of energy. That has led us, as a company, to invest in clean energy for our datacenters and cutting-edge energy efficiency R&D projects to reduce our overall energy consumption.

It would be a mistake to view the cloud only as an energy challenge. At Microsoft, we are looking at our datacenters as the factories of the future, and see in them an opportunity for optimization that will allow us to achieve greater efficiencies and an even more sustainable cloud ecosystem.

This mindset has us radically rethinking what’s possible for datacenter design and performance and how a datacenter can integrate better with the grid. We’re working to create datacenters that go beyond carbon neutrality to be even cleaner and lower impact, and then leverage our technology to help accelerate the transition to a greener grid at large.

Our goal is ambitious – we want to make the datacenter disappear. By optimizing design elements of the datacenter with grid in mind, we plan to reduce and eventually eliminate our impact on the ecosystem.

We’ve completed a number of projects that show us it’s possible to integrate energy production into the datacenter and leverage our resources to support the grid – reducing the number of generators on the grid and ultimately using fewer resources, radically improving efficiency.

Back Up Power & Advanced Energy Storage

Already, datacenters have energy production capabilities. Each datacenter has a fleet of generators as a backup power source and batteries for uninterruptible power sources (UPS). This infrastructure is what ensures datacenters keep running in the event of a grid interruption or failure. So we started thinking about how to better leverage these assets.

We can start by making generators cleaner. Instead of diesel, we’ve tested natural gas alternatives to this industry standby in attempt to find a better option, and we look forward to installing our first natural gas generators in the planned expansion of our datacenter in Cheyenne, WY.

Microsoft is also working on ways to maximize these assets for a greener grid. Rather than thinking of the generators and batteries inside datacenters as infrastructure we hope we never have to use, we’ve been researching how we – or others on the grid – can also use them in times of peak demand. As more renewables come onto the grid, utilities are already exploring backup power options – what if we offered the use of these existing resources, instead of having utilities construct new backup power systems?

This is what motivates our ongoing work on longer-duration batteries such as flow batteries. In April we announced a flow battery testing program that has led to a breakthrough in the potential of advanced energy storage globally. The program—being carried out in collaboration with NRG Energy, the University of Texas at San Antonio and battery technology providers, including Red Flow and American Vanadium — tested how well flow batteries perform and their revenue potential in a variety of applications, from powering datacenters to optimizing electric distribution grids. The early results are promising, showing that these batteries can help ease the transition to a grid increasingly powered by renewables by providing reliable back-up power during periods of peak demand—essentially turning Microsoft’s datacenters into a distributed battery storage plant that could feed energy back to grid during a shortage. In addition to the testing at UTSA, we have also installed a Primus Power flow battery at a small modular datacenter in Redmond testing the integration into datacenter operations.

Onsite Energy Production & Conversion

We’ve also been experimenting with ways to boost efficiency by rethinking the supply chain of energy. Microsoft has successfully piloted new ideas for collapsing the entire energy supply chain above the server rack that almost doubles the energy efficiency of a traditional datacenter by reducing the amount of energy lost during generation, transmission, and distribution. Now, we’re pairing and scaling up these innovative approaches to energy production and conversion in order to design the clean, zero-impact digital factories the world needs.

We see great promise in using electrochemical systems such fuel cells in a number of different ways across the datacenter.

We’ve demonstrated the viability of rack-mounted fuel cells for onsite energy conversion. In November 2013, we announced a new proof-of-concept that brought the power plant inside the datacenter by mounting a hydrogen fuel cells directly onto the datacenter’s server racks. Less than three months later, fuel cell datacenters took another major step forward following the successful demonstration of the concept at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. That demonstration showed that a fuel cell-powered datacenter can be built off the grid, while delivering significantly greater energy efficiency. If this approach were scaled up across the United States, we anticipate that fuel cell stacks—in which the fuel cell is integrated directly into the server rack—could double energy efficiency, while cutting out numerous points of failure that occur in traditional electrical transmission. In addition, Microsoft recently introduced a method to allow servers and fuel cells to talk to each other. SizeCap, the first proven energy storage device (ESD) sizing framework to effectively handle power surges in fuel cell-powered datacenters, allowing for the further integration of cleaner datacenter technologies. Our next step is to test this approach on a larger scale.

Fuel cells also allow us to tap other sources of clean energy. In 2014 we opened the first zero-carbon datacenter in Cheyenne, WY. The pilot project, a partnership with the city of Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming, and Fuel Cell Energy, used biogas—a byproduct that is naturally produced when stabilizing municipal waste—to power the fuel cell-based data facility. The results, even on this small scale, were impressive. We were able to demonstrate a datacenter running entirely off a waste stream. Now we are exploring opportunities to implement this biogas fuel cell combination on a larger scale.

Moving Ahead
These past efficiency projects have laid the groundwork for further research, investment and innovation at Microsoft. We have contemplated the impact the cloud and other digital technology will have on our world and how we can build cleaner infrastructure from the beginning. These projects expanded our vision of what’s possible and encourage us to take the next step in building the responsible, zero-carbon datacenters that will power our future. We look forward to sharing our progress in the months to come.

Next month, countries around the world will gather in Morocco for the annual U.N. meeting on climate change. Since the Paris Climate Agreement was approved by 190 world leaders last December, diplomats have been hard at work developing new global initiatives to support the carbon reduction targets embedded in the Paris Agreement. In fact, over […]

Yesterday, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist Rob Bernard participated in a keynote discussion at the National Association of Manufacturers’ Leading Edge Executive Forum in Chicago about how technology can transform the way natural resources are managed and used. Rob was joined by Christophe Beck, President of EcoLab, to discuss the promise of technology in addressing another […]