Microsoft Responds to Pollution Claims at its Quincy Datacenter

Microsoft today responded to a New York Times story about pollution, power wasting and political arm twisting associated with the Microsoft datacenter in Quincy, Wash.

The Times' story about Quincy, published online yesterday, depicts a small rural town in central Washington (population of about 6,220) that has embraced a new kind of farming by supporting power-hungry datacenters or "server farms," which can tap local hydropower from the Columbia River. The datacenters support various online services, and the datacenter building boom has taken off in Quincy. In addition to Microsoft's facility, which occupies the space of 10 football fields, Quincy is home to datacenters built for Dell, Intuit, Sabey and Yahoo. However, while such activity may seem good for the city's finances, the Times' story depicts a cautionary tale.

Microsoft contributed a lot of tax dollars to the Quincy in building its datacenter there, but it also pushed city officials around, according to the Times' account. The story also focuses on Microsoft's reliance on the use of dirty diesel generators to power its Quincy facility, as well as an incident in which Microsoft threatened to waste power in order to not pay a fine for overestimating electrical power use.

The Times' story cites a local resident talking about the cloud of black smoke that arises when Microsoft starts its diesel generators in the morning, but a blog post by Brian Janous, utility architect for datacenter advanced development at Microsoft, sidesteps the question about the diesel pollution.

"One section of the article implies that Microsoft has run its diesel backup generators in excess of what is required to provide safe, reliable power to our data centers. We would respectfully disagree," Janous wrote.

Even though the Microsoft claims that its Quincy facility is "powered 100 percent by renewable hydropower," diesel generators are still used, presumably as a fail-safe measure. A Microsoft-produced video that describes the Quincy facility states that Microsoft keeps onsite fuel supplies on the grounds for "natural disasters." However, the Times' account indicates that the diesel generators are used for backup power. Quincy is a "generation-2" Microsoft facility. Microsoft claims up to 50 percent greater energy efficiency with its current "generation-4" datacenters. Diesel use has been cited a pollution problem before with Microsoft's facilities. The Times' story cites Microsoft's Santa Clara datacenter as being one of the biggest diesel polluters in 2008 and 2009, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Environmental activist group Greenpeace, which has an ongoing campaign to get companies running datacenters to use renewable and clean power sources, published a report in April (PDF) listing the various service providers that are using dirty energy. The Quincy facility is listed in the report as using 74.24 percent renewable energy (rather than 100 percent as claimed by Microsoft), which is better than many datacenters. However, Microsoft is also listed as a heavy user of coal and nuclear energies in its facilities, according to the report. A GreenPeace editorial running on the same day as the Times piece noted that the campaign has been somewhat successful in getting Facebook and Google to change course, but many datacenters rely on energy producers that continue to use nonrenewable and dirty fuels.

The Times' story depicts Microsoft as treating local officials as if Quincy were bought and paid for by the company. For instance, Microsoft challenged a $210,000 penalty assessed by the Grant County Public Utility District. The public utility fines companies when they overestimate or underestimate their power use because the utility has to try to sell the excess power that's available to meet its budgets. Microsoft used less power than it estimated, but instead of paying the penalty like Yahoo did, Microsoft threatened to waste power instead.

The threat came in the form of a letter from letter from Darrell Amundson, the manager of Microsoft Quincy facility, according to the Times' account. And the threat was apparently carried out. City officials said Microsoft began burning an additional "five million to seven million watts" of power in mid-December. In response, the utility's board met and decided to reduce Microsoft's penalty to $60,000.

Janous' blog post doesn't mention Microsoft's pushback on the Quincy utility's penalty. He just concluded his blog post by claiming that Microsoft "will continue to work with industry, governments, customers, local communities, and other stakeholders to improve the efficiency, sustainability, reliability, and safety of our data centers, and to share our best practices with others."

Microsoft claims to be engaged in power efficiency efforts in its datacenters, as outlined in its "Top 10 Business Practices for Environmentally Sustainable Data Centers" document (PDF). One of those practices is the creation of a "carbon fee" within Microsoft, a procedure of using an internal cost model to help reduce the company's carbon output. Microsoft claims to be making progress on that front, based on its participation in the Carbon Disclosure Project, a nonprofit organization that counts Microsoft and SAP as partners.

In any case, the unrefuted picture in the Times' story is that the ostensible greenness of datacenters isn't a reality in some locations, and that the large companies building them can have overweening power over local city officials due to economic clout. Along with the pollution that datacenters bring, few jobs result. Janous estimated that Microsoft's Quincy facility only created 50 jobs.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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