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Microsoft's energy master plan

Ultimately, its innovations could become a big selling advantage for its cloud services.

This article is drawn from the Energy Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Thursdays.

I’ve long been struck by the obvious similarities between the energy storage technologies designed for commercial and industrial applications and UPS systems (uninterruptible power supplies, used to back up power for data centers and other mission-critical building gadgets).

It’s way oversimplifying things, but I tend to think of both, essentially, as whopping big batteries.

I’m not the only geek making that link or leap. Microsoft has dedicated a team of researchers to exploring ways to use the equipment more dynamically to back up its massive server banks.

The heart of those experiments is taking place at a test bed (actually, inside a shipping container) in Boydton, Virginia, where the technology giant is working with engineers from the PJM Interconnection, the electric grid operator for 13 states on the East Coast. (The power management technology comes from Eaton.)

The question they’re probing: Can the backup systems traditionally meant to keep sophisticated computers and networking equipment online in blackouts, and protected against electricity spikes at other times, be used to stabilize the power grid? "We’re looking at scenarios in which the data center might not be a load, it might be an asset," Microsoft’s director of energy research, Sean James, told me.

We’re looking at scenarios in which the data center might not be a load, it might be an asset.

Brandon Middaugh, senior program manager for distributed energy at Microsoft, said adapting the UPS systems for the project wasn’t "technically" that hard — it entailed swapping the lead-acid batteries typically used by these sorts of devices for ones made out of lithium-ion phosphate. The latter can be discharged and recharged over more cycles, and controlled with software that closely monitors and manages whether a battery is fully charged.

So, basically the idea is that while these UPS systems are in standby (most of the time), they can be called upon for quick bursts of power when the grid needs to accommodate short-term spikes in demand. After they serve that purpose, the systems can be charged back up to the levels appropriate for ensuring the data center is protected.

The challenge, Middaugh explained during our conversation, is determining whether it’s safe to rely on these batteries for grid demand-response applications without compromising their core mission: making sure the outside world doesn’t experience a Microsoft Cloud outage. "It’s important for us to maintain control over all our resources," she said.

That’s why, for now at least, the test is limited to just one set of servers in Virginia. But this isn’t Microsoft’s first exploration of ways it might turn its data center into power resources (think "Data Plant" versus "Power Plant"). It also has experimented with a biogas-powered fuel cell installation in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at a data center used to run high-performance computing applications.

That test led to the creation last fall of the Microsoft Advanced Energy Lab, a 20-rack data center in Seattle built in partnership with consulting and construction firm McKinstry and generator company Cummins.

The design integrates fuel cells directly into the data center, which the partners said is critical for helping the facility achieve energy-efficiency performance that is almost double that of traditional operations. "The lab is our latest step towards our ongoing work to eventually eliminate the energy and resource impact of our data centers; in other words, making our data centers disappear," said Suresh Kumar, corporate vice president for the Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations division, in a statement. 

Lest I forget: Another project that fits into the company's bigger mission of reconsidering energy is Microsoft’s ongoing tests of innovative cooling approaches, such as plunging data center containers underwater.

Ultimately, this could all become a big selling advantage for the company: If Microsoft can demonstrate that its cloud services are less carbon-intensive than the competition (here’s looking at you, Amazon and Google), then more corporate accounts will be inclined to build their own mission-critical applications in its cloud versus those of its rivals. 

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