When Brian Janous landed his first job at Microsoft as a data centre utility architect a decade ago, he recalls that it was not clear to him why the company would be thinking about energy as a strategic issue for the company. “In fact, I told the person that hired me this sounded like a ‘dead end’ job,” he laughs. “It turned out to be quite essential to our growth and success.”
Now, the computer company, synonymous with the rise of information technology in the 1980s, is one of the biggest corporate buyers of renewable energy in the US, with Mr Janous, its general manager of energy and renewables, at the helm.
This July, Microsoft unveiled its new ‘100/100/0’ initiative, which targets 100% renewable energy for its electricity consumption 100% of the time, in line with a similar announcement from Google last year.
Raising stakes to hourly matching
Since its first climate commitment to carbon neutrality back in 2012, Microsoft has consistently raised the stakes, targeting 100% renewable energy on an annual basis in 2020. In 2019, it partnered with energy company Vattenfall to pilot the world’s first hourly renewables matching scheme in Sweden.
“Our vision has always been about the decarbonisation of the electric grid. Electricity is a hugely important part of our business,” Mr Janous tells fDi.
The latest announcement means that Microsoft plans to reduce the carbon intensity of any grid it operates on by purchasing zero-carbon energy on an hourly basis. Rather than purchasing green certificates on an annual basis, which can help conceal a company’s consumption of carbon-based energy on the electric grid, Microsoft aims to match its energy consumption with clean energy at every hour of the day. By monitoring this hourly, rather than annually, Microsoft gives itself little room to hide from scrutiny over its true carbon footprint.
Over the course of 2020, Microsoft signed new purchase agreements for roughly 5.8GW of renewable energy across nine countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Spain, the UK and Ireland, bringing its contracted and operational renewable energy projects to 7.8GW* globally.
With $50bn of its revenue is driven by cloud-based technologies, housed in data centres, the company’s raw material has become electricity, prompting Mr Janous to compare the buildout of cloud infrastructure over the past decade to the construction of electric grids some 100 years ago.
Much like there is a raw material that goes into a power plant that is then distributed as a more useful form of energy, he says, Microsoft takes that refined energy and ‘refines’ it again, distributing it as data.
The next decade
“The problem that we had to solve in the past decade was just scaling [wind and solar energy],” Mr Janous explains. “Now, as we start to get higher levels of penetration of these intermittent resources, we’re going to have to be a lot more intelligent about where we’re putting them.”
Microsoft has committed to a $1bn climate innovation fund, through which it invests into climate technology start-ups. It also sits on the Hydrogen Council, a global chief executive-led initiative set on developing the hydrogen economy.
“As we go through this decade, there’ll be more clarity as to what problem [hydrogen] is best suited to solve, because, like a Swiss army knife, it can do everything, but not anything particularly well,” he quips, referring to its projected use for as an energy solution for diverse challenges, from storage to long-distance shipping.
Mr Janous looks back at his time at the company and considers Microsoft to have been on a “steady march of awareness” to setting bold zero-carbon targets, spanning the purchase of electricity to decarbonising its supply chains.
“2030 is still nine years away, but when you think of the enormity of the task [of 100/100/0], it’s actually quite close,” he says. “If we don’t have a really clear plan in the next few years, it’s going to be really hard to achieve that goal.”
This article first appeared in the August/September print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.
*This article has been amended to reflect the company's total renewable energy procurements.