Demand for data and digital services is expected to continue its exponential growth over the coming years, with global internet traffic projected to double by 2022[i]. The Microsoft cloud is the trusted cloud for everyday digital experiences at work and home – from critical applications for life and safety services, education institutions and governments to advancing scientific research surrounding the world’s most pressing challenges – like climate change. Underpinning the cloud are physical data centres, networking and fibre connected to the world’s energy grids. Customers already benefit from the cloud’s ability to provide massive efficiency that reduces the collective carbon footprint required to support the world’s computing needs. Even so, the increasing demand for clouds leads to increasing demand for data centres, which require power, land and water to operate. We – and the cloud industry – face an important challenge as a result: scaling our computing power to progress digital economies, research and inclusive economic opportunities – while also helping to preserve the only planet we have.
Microsoft’s commitment is to be carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted, either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. To reach this, data centres must be part of the solution for broad decarbonization. The climate challenges we face won’t be solved by one company or industry alone.
Today, we’re sharing more about our approach to not only reach our goals, but also have a wider impact by empowering customers and partners through tools to measure progress, and through our data centre operations and supply chain on which our customers rely. Further, we’re pursuing breakthrough technologies to inspire multidimensional thinking about how we incorporate sustainability into future data centre design and operations.
Advancing our sustainable data centres toward a carbon negative future
As we continue to grow to support the increased demand for cloud across public and private sectors, we must devote resources to finding creative, innovative solutions to today’s data centre operational and engineering challenges to help us meet our ambitious sustainability targets. Our investment in data centre research and development is helping us address important challenges to reduce carbon emissions across our construction and operations, significantly reduce and eliminate water use for cooling, reduce e-waste by giving server parts new life and sustain local ecosystems where our data centres reside. Our mission is to not only find ways to improve our data centre operations but also share these learnings with the broader cloud and built environment industry.
Today, we’re announcing progress on several key advanced development initiatives which will provide additional learnings and insights we can take into our existing operations and help shape the future of the data centre:
- Reducing water use in data centre operations by 95% by 2024: Microsoft’s commitment to be water positive by 2030 requires that we look across every aspect of our operations to reduce and eliminate water use. Today, we’re announcing a new approach to data centre temperature management, which will further reduce the amount of water used in our evaporative cooled data centres globally by 95% by 2024 – or an estimated 5.7 billion litres annually. Through our extensive global research on server performance in warmer temperatures, we’re able to create higher set points for a variety of different climates when water-based, evaporative cooling is necessary to preserve server performance and reliability. We expect this project to be fully implemented by 2024, and it has the potential to eliminate water use for cooling in regions like Amsterdam, Dublin, Virginia and Chicago while reducing water use in desert regions like Arizona by as much as 60%.
- Continued research in liquid immersion cooling, toward waterless cooling options: This year we achieved a major milestone in liquid cooling R&D, making Microsoft the first cloud provider that is running two-phase liquid immersion cooling in a production environment, demonstrating viability for broader use in our datacenters. Our latest research in liquid cooling addresses the concept of overclocking, which is to operate chip components beyond their pre-defined voltage, thermal and power design limits to further improve performance. Based on our tests, we’ve found that for some chipsets, the performance can increase by 20% through the use of liquid cooling. This demonstrates how liquid cooling can be used not only to support our sustainability goals to reduce and eventually eliminate water used for cooling in data centres but also to generate more performant chips operating at warmer coolant temperatures for advanced AI and machine learning workloads. Because of the efficiencies in both power and cooling that liquid cooling affords us, it unlocks new potential for data centre rack design. In short, liquid cooling paves the way for more densely packed servers in smaller spaces, meaning increased capacity per square foot in a data centre – or the ability to create smaller datacenters in more strategic locations in the future. This adds to the benefits of a waterless cooling design.
- Datacenter design to support local ecosystems: We operate data centres all over the globe, each with different native species, temperatures and weather patterns. Understanding how we can design data centres to support local ecosystems starts with understanding how an ecosystem performs on its own. Microsoft has been benchmarking the ecosystem performance in 12 data centre regions, to be completed by end of the calendar year. Through this research, we are quantifying ecosystem performance in terms of water quantity and quality, air, carbon, climate, soil quality, health and well-being and biodiversity. Our goal is to renew and revitalize the surrounding area so that we can restore and create a pathway to provide regenerative value for the local community and environment. The findings of this research are helping to inform one of our first projects in northern Holland, part of our Amsterdam data centre region. To start, we will construct a lowland forested area around the data centre as well as forested wetlands, which are highly saturated with water and vegetation suited for water filtration to naturally process stormwater and runoff. Results from these different approaches suggest that ecosystem performance can be restored by as much as 75%. We have more to go with this, but we are encouraged and inspired by what we have seen so far.
- Cutting carbon footprint in data centre design and construction: Embodied carbon accounts for at least 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest data from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. These are the emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure. Much of embodied carbon is attributed to concrete and steel, and by choosing lower-carbon options, we can have a significant impact on reducing the carbon emissions associated with every new building. We’re on track to build between 50 and 100 new data centres every year in response to customer demand. To reduce embodied carbon in the design and construction of these data centres, we’re using a tool called the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) developed by the nonprofit Building Transparency. As a key initial step for all new datacenters, we now require our construction teams to use the EC3 tool to identify building materials that reduce embodied carbon. Through EC3, we have found opportunities to reduce concrete and steel embodied carbon by 30-60%.
Our goal is to help accelerate the adoption of carbon-storing materials not only at Microsoft but industry-wide, and we’re investing in research to find sustainable materials in building foundations, structures and enclosures that can contribute to a carbon-positive architecture. One such example is our work with Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), a nonprofit, industry-academic organization at the University of Washington. Together, we published a study that explores six low-carbon materials: earthen slabs, non-Portland cement concrete slabs, algae-grown bricks/panels, mycelium (mushroom) structural tubes, purpose-grown fibre and agricultural waste panels – that can help reduce carbon emissions and change the climate profile of building constructions. Our testing will run through the winter to validate the durability of data centers and other building types, and we’ll share our learnings for others in the industry to implement. Lastly, we are collaborating with our colleagues in Microsoft Research who recently introduced Project Zerix, which aims to achieve net-zero embodied carbon and net-zero waste in our data centres and beyond through biodegradable plastics, sustainably printed circuit boards and bio-concrete materials.
Progress on our journey
Our progress today is possible because of earlier investments we made in advanced data centre development and co-development with partners on cloud-based solutions and tools that we can use in our direct operations that the broader market can use too. Some of our most recent milestones include:
- Renewable energy and grid decarbonization: In July, we expanded on our pledge to have 100% renewable energy supply by 2025, committing to have 100% of our electricity consumption, 100% of the time, matched by zero-carbon energy purchases by 2030. We refer to this as our 100/100/0 commitment. Over the last 12 months, Microsoft has signed new power purchase agreements for approximately 5.8 gigawatts of renewable energy across 10 countries around the globe. This includes over 35 individual deals, including over 15 in Europe spanning Denmark, Sweden, Spain, U.K. and Ireland. This procurement brings our operating and contracted renewable energy projects to 7.8 gigawatts globally. According to strategic research provider BloombergNEF, this progress makes Microsoft currently the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in 2021. But we’re not stopping there.
- Microsoft Circular Centers: We’ve created first-of-their-kind Microsoft Circular Centers that will help us extend the life cycle of servers and reuse them to reduce waste. We also recently launched our Amsterdam Circular Center with plans to bring new Circular Centers to Boydton, Dublin, Chicago and Singapore in the coming fiscal year. In 2020, as reported to us by Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), our top suppliers reduced their collective carbon footprint by 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Over the next year, we will extend this model to all our cloud computing assets and are on track to achieve 90% reuse.
- LEED certification: We’ve committed to certifying all our owned data centres to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental) Gold status – demonstrating that our buildings are energy- and resource-efficient. Our Arizona data centre region, which launched in June, is now LEED Gold certified.
- 24/7 energy matching in action: We’re building one of our most sustainable cloud regions in Sweden set to launch later this year, which will use the first hourly energy monitoring solution we created with our partner Vattenfall, enabling us to use 100% renewable energy for each hour of consumption. This solution is available to Vattenfall customers today.
- Working with our cloud supply chain to reduce scope 3 emissions: In support of reducing our scope 3 emissions – or all the indirect emissions of operations – our top suppliers reported reducing their collective footprint by 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), according to the 2020 Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) reporting cycle. In FY21, we have expanded the number of suppliers in the program and deepened our engagement level to ensure our emissions reductions are achieved. This builds on the work mentioned above to address scope 3 emissions in our data centre design and construction by cutting embedded carbon.
Introducing the Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability in public preview
In addition to these investments in our cloud infrastructure, today we’re pleased to announce the public preview of Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which will allow organizations to more effectively record, report and reduce their carbon emissions on a path to net-zero. It’s hard to improve or change what you can’t measure. The world needs global standards – a common foundation to ensure carbon emissions are measured in an accurate, consistent and reliable manner globally – and innovative technology solutions to reduce carbon emissions and our environmental impact.
Together with our partners and customers, we can reach net-zero and create the path to carbon negative. To get there, we need to share our learnings and progress and create new tools and solutions to benchmark where we are today, measure our progress and make them widely available. If you’d like to learn more about our data centre operations and commitments in action today, you can visit microsoft.com/sustainability, as well as take a virtual tour of our datacenters here.