Report says Microsoft burned millions of watts of unnecessary power to avoid fines

Microsoft burned millions of watts of electricity unnecessarily so it could avoid paying a fine for overestimating electricity use, according to the New York Times. The Times, which took an in-depth look at the company's data centers, reports other troubling issues, including a review under California's Air Toxics "Hot Spots" Program.

The Times reports that back in 2006, Microsoft bought land in rural Grant County, Washington, to build a data center. It chose the location because of its proximity to hydroelectric generators that could provide cheap electricity in a sustainable way.

But things didn't go according to plan. As part of a deal with the utility to provide power, Microsoft was required to estimate the minimum amount of electricity it would use, and to pay a fine if it didn't use that amount. Utilities say they need this kind of guarantee in order to match demand to output.

The Times reports that because Microsoft underestimated its power demand, it was facing a $210,000 penalty. Rather than merely pay the penalty, which Yahoo had done for its data center which is provided power by the same utility, Microsoft instead burned off millions of watts of electricity unnecessarily. The Times notes:

"In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for overestimating its power use, Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show. Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an 'unnecessarily wasteful' way until the fine was substantially cut, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

The newspaper later added:

"Microsoft threatened to waste tremendous amounts of power by simply running giant heaters for no purpose, according to utility officials who said they were briefed on the matter by Microsoft, unless the penalty was largely forgiven. The idea was to burn the power fast enough to move closer to the forecast before year's end."

The paper said that Microsoft proceeded to waste millions of watts of electricity unnecessarily, in order to reduce or eliminate its fine.

The paper found other troubling issues, many related to the diesel generators that Microsoft -- and most other big data centers -- use in order to provide backup if the grid fails. The newspaper cites many instances of heavy pollution caused by Microsoft's generators, noting:

"In 2008 and 2009, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District listed Microsoft's Santa Clara data center as one of the largest stationary diesel polluters in the Bay Area...

"Microsoft was informed that the increased emissions had prompted a review under California’s Air Toxics 'Hot Spots' Program. The notice said the potential for diesel emissions to cause cancers among employees in more than a dozen nearby businesses was above the program's threshold.

Microsoft is not alone in having these kinds of problems. In a previous article, the Times did an in-depth examination of the environment impact of data centers, including Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others. It concluded that giant data centers and cloud computing use and waste an enormous amount of electricity. It found that data centers can "waste 90 percent or more of the electricity ey pull off the grid," and the centers' backup diesel generators frequently violate clean air regulations.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others often tout how green they are. The Times articles shows that's clearly not the case, at least when it comes to their massive data centers. That's something that needs to change. The technology industry was built on the idea that working smarter was better than brute force when it comes to solving problems. But the industry seems to have forgotten that in the way it manages its data centers.

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