How AI is helping elephants, orcas and other species

Elephants used to wander freely across Asia. Today, they roam through a fraction of the landthey used to. Athe human population growsAsian elephant habitat continues to shrink. In Africa, the story isn’t much brighter: In addition to dwindling habitat, the African elephant contends with an illegal ivory trade that kills more than 20,000 elephants a year. Conservationists and researchers are doing all they can. But with fewer than 500,000 elephants left worldwide, time is running out. 
That’s where programs like AI for Earth come in.  
AI for Earth grants are awarded to projects that change the way people and organizations monitor, model and, ultimately, manage Earth’s natural systems 
More than 300 grants have been given to projects in 60 countries. That’s good news for elephants  and other animals, too. See how researchers, conservationists and scientists are using Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools to understand diverse species and safeguard vulnerable animals.  


elephants in the wild
Larry Li from

Organizations like Conservation Metrics (with the Elephant Listening Project) use AI-enabled tools to help ensure a better future for the elephantsTo monitor and predict poaching threats, Conservation Metrics and the Elephant Listening Project use acoustic surveys, and Save the Elephants relies on GPS tracking collars.  

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Why a national land cover map matters, and how processing 200M images in 10 minutes will help

When we started AI for Earth, we had one simple but huge ambition – to fundamentally transform the way we, as a society, monitor, model and manage Earth’s natural resources.

That transformation will ultimately require collecting and processing exceptionally large datasets – an endeavor that can take a lot of time and money, even with advanced cloud computing and AI tools like deep learning. In part, these barriers have curtailed progress on important tools for conservation, like up to date land cover maps.

I’m excited to share that we’ve made a computing breakthrough that moves the needle towards real-time analysis of land cover data. We first shared the news at Build—Microsoft’s annual developer conference—and on Thursday and Friday of this week AI for Earth’s principal engineer Jennifer Marsman will be discussing our results in detail at an AI event in Paris.

Why does land cover mapping matter? There are three big reasons.

  1. Land cover mapping is the foundation of effective conservation and sustainable growth. Data is the lifeblood of conservation efforts; and to protect complex ecosystems, such as watersheds, conservationists need accurate and precise spatial data. Real-time, high resolution land cover maps can guide conservation efforts, but creating these maps using available imagery—and tracking changes over time—requires complex algorithms and computing resources.
  2. This foundation has been in shambles. The best available land cover map in the United States is at 30-meter resolution and eight years out of date. That’s because processing the explosion of satellite, sensor and aerial images is tedious and time-consuming.
  3. This situation is only going to deteriorate. We are now collecting geospatial data at an incredible rate. We need algorithms, and the hardware they run on, to be able to keep pace with the increasing speed of data collection.

Because this problem of up-to-date land cover mapping is so basic and so important, it was one of the very first projects we took on with AI for Earth, in partnership with Esri and the Chesapeake Conservancy. Using algorithms on Microsoft’s Azure platform and integrating with Esri’s ArcGIS spatial mapping software, the Chesapeake Conservancy and its collaborators in the Chesapeake Bay Partnership created an accurate, current land cover map of the Chesapeake Bay watershed at one-meter resolution—giving conservationists access to data with 900 times the information that was available before.

That’s great for the Chesapeake, but it still left the rest of the country to be mapped, a task that would require processing over 10 trillion pixels of imagery into categories like forests, fields, water, and urban areas. Until today, this would take a huge amount of time and manual resources.

Now, through Project Brainwave, we are capable of processing more than 20 terabytes of aerial imagery into land cover data for the entire United States in much less time, and for much less money, than existing solutions. We are using a new FPGA (field programmable gate array) chip solution in Azure, which can plow through nearly 200 million images in just over 10 minutes for a cost of $42. These results pave the way for organizations to produce new, high resolution land cover maps on infrastructure that can scale up or down for all sorts of problems around the world.

To be clear, algorithms need to be both fast and accurate, and there’s still a lot of work and testing to do on that front. Nonetheless, these speedy results are a good first step in empowering people to apply AI at earth scale. And, of course, land cover mapping is just one of over 100 projects in which we have invested – please check out our website:  for the latest updates on our grantees, projects and progress.

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How scientists are confronting environmental challenges with the help of AI

Counting trees

mountains trees and sky

Using AI and machine learning, SilviaTerra maps and monitors forests, yielding data about trees across the continental United States. The high-resolution, tree-level map of the United States is the first of its kind. It gives conservationists and landowners critical details to sustainably manage forests at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional surveys.

Growing more with less

man works in garden

Farmers face an uphill battle as arable land and water supplies dwindle, while the global population grows. FarmBeats, a program that uses Microsoft’s cloud and AI technologies to help farmers sustainably improve yields and lower costs, evaluates sensor data and aerial imagery against weather forecasts and crop predictions to enable data-driven agricultural practices.   

Identifying snow leopards by their spots

a snow leopard with mountain in the background
Photo by SLCF Mongolia/Snow Leopard Trust

Snow leopards are rare, with an estimated population of just 4,000 to 6,000 in the wild, and remote camera trap photography is one of the only reliable ways to study their behaviors. Historically, researchers have sifted through thousands of photos manually to find snow leopard images and use that data to protect the species from poaching, mining, climate change and other threatsNow researchers at the Snow Leopard Trust are using a Microsoft AI automation tool to automatically classify images in minutes rather than hours, combining years of data into a comprehensive database. This allows them to focus on advancing conservation science instead of manually poring through images.   

Protecting key watersheds

satellite data map
Photo provided by Chesapeake Conservancy

Scientists are using Microsoft’s AI and cloud technologies to create highly detailed maps to help conserve the world’s water resources. Chesapeake Conservancysupported by an AI for Earth grant, is working to integrate AI technology to produce high-resolution land cover and land use maps for precision conservations to improve water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. With this data, the Conservancy is supporting progress in the restoration of the bay. 


Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy creates a more sustainable future with AI and the cloud

With towers as high as 120 meters (390 feet) and rotor blades that span the height of a 22-story building, industrial wind turbines are challenges to inspect and maintain.

Traditionally, a wind turbine blade inspection required technicians to rappel down a stopped turbine in remote areas – sometimes at sea – to take pictures of cracks and faults in a turbine’s blades. Or it involved someone on land taking pictures with a telescope and camera. The work was often time-consuming and challenging.

But a year and a half ago, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, a global leader in the wind power industry, transformed the process with autonomous drones and a digital solution called Hermes. The aircraft capture high-resolution images quickly, while the solution analyzes images for potential blade damage, all resulting in safer, faster and more accurate inspections.

Based in Spain, the company is now further improving the solution by migrating it to Microsoft Azure and infusing it with Azure AI to process image recognition. The digital enhancements will enable Siemens Gamesa to streamline blade inspections even more, in its mission to make renewable energy more affordable and the future more sustainable.

Wind turbines in a landscape of snow and blue sky
Siemens Gamesa wind turbines in Norway.

“Hermes is taking a huge leap forward with the collaboration with Microsoft,” says Christian Sonderstrup, service chief digital officer at Siemens Gamesa, which has installed wind power technologies in 90 countries. “AI, cloud and big data enable us to move to the next level of performance, in terms of innovation and in lowering the levelized cost of renewable energy.”*

The drones, which will inspect 1,700 turbines this year, are fast, precise photographers, capturing about 400 images of a turbine’s three blades in 20 minutes. The images form an overview of blade condition and needed repairs, but the need to manually sort and stitch them has been a challenge. The laborious task was recently evident in a large inspection project involving 100,000 photos.

“We had someone looking into every one of these photos, and then every finding of a severe fault needed to be evaluated again by an engineer,” says Anne Katrine Karner-Gotfredsen, Siemens Gamesa manager of product integrity and warranty management in the company’s blade program.

Integrating Azure AI services will greatly speed up the process, with image recognition that can stitch images into an accurate model of an entire rotor in 34 seconds. The same job with manual stitching takes four to six hours and could lead to errors. AI tools can differentiate blades from water, sky and other irrelevant elements; distinguish cracks and faults from, say, bird droppings; integrate drone location and camera zoom data for precise stitching; and classify faults by type and severity.

“To review all the photos is a huge task,” says Karner-Gotfredsen. “Before Hermes, it was quite tedious to categorize and store all the data in a place that everyone can access. The more we can make it an automated process, the easier it is for us to work with the data.” Faster, accurate inspections mean less downtime of turbines, earlier detection of faults, better predictive maintenance and fewer costly repairs – all contributing to more affordable wind power.

Offshore wind turbines pictured with a beautiful sunset
Siemens Gamesa offshore wind turbines in the United Kingdom.

For Karner-Gotfredsen, the cloud will also help optimize projects like one she managed last year, involving a customer’s inspection of several wind parks. The data was difficult to share among Siemens Gamesa, the customer and a third-party reviewer, requiring Karner-Gotfredsen to send and receive it on a hard drive several times, along with cumbersome spreadsheets in email.

“The fact that we now can have the data going directly into Hermes with the cloud, without us having to carry hard drives, and having the data automatically sorted and stitched, saves us many people hours,” she says. “AI is augmenting the work our employees are doing, allowing them to focus on their core competencies.”

AI-powered blade analyses are also part of Siemens Gamesa’s goal to provide complete, 360-degree digital coverage of customers’ turbines. And they’re part of a digital strategy that focuses on productivity, digital extensions of current business offerings and new digital businesses. As Siemens Gamesa advances the strategy, it’s using Microsoft 365 and Azure as its IT foundation for developing new innovations that are scalable, robust and insightful.

“We aspire to be the digital leader in renewable energy,” says Sonderstrup. “AI, the cloud and big data are enablers of that journey.”

*Levelized cost of energy is the lifetime cost of an asset divided by the amount of electricity produced.

Top photo: Siemens Gamesa wind turbines in Morocco. (All photos courtesy of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy)

Learn how Microsoft partners are building a sustainable future at Hannover Messe 2019.


On World Water Day, Microsoft is delivering new approaches to ensure we leave no one behind

Today is World Water Day, and this year the theme is “Leaving no one behind.” This is a phrase oft-invoked, but it is particularly important when it comes to water because we are currently leaving 900 million people – much of the world’s population – behind when it comes to safe drinking water, and we’re trending in the wrong direction.

The UN predicts that by 2030, the world may face a 40 percent shortfall in available water. The causes? Climate change is making an already precious resource even more scarce, as rainfall becomes increasingly erratic with temperature changes. Demand is spiking, as the global population grows and consumes more water for farming, industry and personal consumption.

It is a daunting challenge, but a solvable one. It will require far greater understanding of the current state of water on the planet – the location, quantity and quality of freshwater reserves – and how (and how much) is currently being used and by whom. Then, we can use this information to drive efficiencies in delivery and consumption, incentivize behavior change on a local and global level and drive even greater innovation.

Water everywhere and not a drop to drink
Solving the water challenge begins with understanding where the most challenged areas are. Organizations like the World Resources Institute (WRI) and The Nature Conservancy are doing a great deal of work on this issue. The Nature Conservancy’s Protecting Water Atlas aims to drive better decision-making by showing the benefits of investments in water. WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas shows both current and future conditions of where water-related risks are most severe, helping decision-makers understand and plan for potential changes in water availability due to climate change and economic development. Microsoft uses the WRI tool in both our global real estate portfolio planning and management and our climate resilience assessments, and supports The Nature Conservancy’s coastal resilience toolkit through AI for Earth and Azure credits.

It’s not just measuring risk – it’s about managing it through proactive approaches. This includes effective conservation measures. Water leakage is one area where improvements could make a big difference. In England and Wales alone, nonprofit organization Discover Water estimates that 3,183 million liters of water are leaked each day. That’s equivalent to filling 1,273 Olympic swimming pools per day! This isn’t a U.K. problem, it’s a global problem. The World Bank estimates that on average, 25 to 30 percent of a utility’s water is lost in the network, and in developing countries as much as 45 million cubic meters are said to be lost daily through leaks.

This prompted Powel, a European software solutions provider, to work with Microsoft to create an Internet of Things solution called SmartWater that can provide the ability to discover and react to these leakages early. The solution monitors water flow into a distribution system and in near real time, with the help of machine learning, detects anomalies so action can be taken.

Beyond conservation, some organizations are looking at water replenishment efforts motivated by the data. Microsoft is one of them. Through our early-stage initiative, we are identifying water-stressed areas around the world, the best partners in that region to collaborate with, and are making investments in projects that improve water conditions and alleviate water stress in those areas. That’s why one fall day last year, some Microsoft employees built beaver dams in Washington state. These beaver dam analogs offer water availability and quality benefits and represented our first public investment in this area.

We’re also engaging in collaborative platforms, such as the UN CEO Water Mandate, to identify opportunities to advance collective action to align and amplify the commitments of individual companies to contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6.

Beyond conservation to transformation
Water is one of the four key issue areas of our AI for Earth program, a $50 million, 5-year commitment to providing AI tools to researchers around the globe working on environmental challenges. More than 230 grantees are doing work, enabled by AI, in more than 60 countries on challenges related to water, as well as agriculture, biodiversity and climate change. Ultimately, these issues are interrelated – it’s difficult to solve any of the challenges in these areas without addressing others. Here are three grantees that are working across those disciplines, with AI, to drive new insights and behaviors, from algae blooms to precision agriculture with an eye toward water availability to predicting events like floods when we have too much water:

Providing early warning of harmful algal bloom outbreaks
For many years, the waters of Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands were pristine, a landmark for natural beauty and biodiversity. However, in 2009 the lake experienced the first of several harmful algal blooms (HABs) – out-of-control colonies of algae that suck oxygen out of the water and make it potentially toxic to life.

Africa Flores describes that first HAB in Lake Atitlán as a wake-up call for action to preserve its precious biodiversity. But Guatemala has limited resources and means to investigate and better understand the causes and help predict and prevent future outbreaks. Thankfully, Flores’ work as a research scientist at the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville allows her to focus on this very issue.

Flores and her team will conduct deep analyses on image datasets from different satellites. Machine learning will help them to identify the variables that could predict future algal blooms. Knowledge on what those triggers are can turn into precise preventative action, not just in the lake in Flores’ home country but also in other freshwater bodies with similar conditions in Central and South America.

Improving agricultural water use efficiency with AI
As climate change disrupts weather patterns, rainfall is becoming more unreliable. Farmers are drilling more wells for center-pivot irrigation – a method where crops are watered with sprinklers rotating around a central source. However, this approach can lead to lowered or even drained water tables, salination of coastal aquifers, land subsidence and disruption to ecosystems.

Kelly Caylor, a professor of ecohydrology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is investigating how much water is being used from these groundwater sources. He is developing a web tool that uses machine learning to identify active crop fields in satellite imagery and geospatial analysis tools to monitor how crops change over time. Knowing where the crops are growing and for how long, and then correlating that to weather data, the system can also infer how much water is being used.

With a better understanding of how much groundwater is used by center-pivot irrigation will come opportunities to develop more optimal and efficient practices, as well as policies for better water stewardship. With the online map and tools, farmers, water resource managers, policymakers and the public will be better able to make agriculture more land and water efficient.

Improving long-range forecasts for flood prediction
Climate change disruption to weather patterns sometimes means drought and sometimes means flooding. Already, a United Nations study has shown an increase in weather-related disasters since 1995, with floods accounting for nearly half. Climate change projections suggest that the frequency and severity of floods will increase in years to come as temperatures rise. And flooding threatens the most people in some of the countries least able to predict or prevent the devastation.

To make these regions more resilient, long-range forecasts for precipitation and flooding risk must be improved. Existing weather forecast models have been shown to routinely underestimate precipitation even the day before, and neither amount nor location can be predicted accurately five days in advance. But professors Wei Ding and Shafiqul Islam are leading a small team to develop machine learning models with the goal of accurately predicting floods up to 15 days in advance.

The team’s approach is to process enormous historical weather data sets and look for patterns that precede flooding. With this analysis, they plan to build a new forecasting model that can give early flood warnings to vulnerable populations around the world. More accurate and timely predictions will help reduce the overall impact of these disasters.

Transformations don’t have to be fueled by AI to make a difference. Microsoft is also making it easy for you to get engaged – just watch some Minecraft! Our team has been hard at work at the “Village and Pillage” update, which includes a redesign of water wells. This weekend, we’re supporting the nonprofit Charity: Water effort to bring clean water to people around the world through their “Weekend for Water.” All you have to do is tune in to livestreams of Minecraft players – you can make donations, the streamers will be giving away Minecoins, and the money raised will help dig wells to provide clean water around the globe.

So this World Water Day, I encourage you to take action, and encourage your friends, neighbors, employers and government officials to take action as well. It will take all of us to ensure no one is left behind, and that work should begin today.

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Microsoft strengthens global energy portfolio with 74 megawatts of North Carolina solar power from Invenergy’s Wilkinson Solar Energy Center

CHICAGO March 6, 2019 – Microsoft Corp. and Invenergy, a leading U.S.-based, privately held global developer and operator of sustainable energy solutions, today announced a 74-megawatt solar project in North Carolina. The new project will deliver economic investment and jobs for Beaufort County, clean energy to Microsoft, and growth to the U.S. solar power industry.

Invenergy logoThe Wilkinson Solar Energy Center project will be constructed, owned and operated by Invenergy, which has contracted more than 1,600 megawatts supporting corporate renewable customers. Via the 15-year power purchase agreement, Microsoft will become the sole offtaker of the energy generated at the Wilkinson Solar Energy Center. This represents Microsoft’s fourth power purchase agreement in the PJM Interconnection and will bring Microsoft’s total renewable energy portfolio to more than 1.3 gigawatts.

“When we invest in renewable energy, we are investing in the future — enabling sustainable growth of our business, of the clean energy sector and the local communities that benefit economically from Microsoft’s commitment to sustainability,” said Brian Janous, Microsoft’s general manager of Energy and Sustainability. “Our work with companies like Invenergy is an integral step toward our goal of enabling a clean energy future for everyone. We are pleased our partnership will bring new solar resources to the PJM region.”

“Invenergy is proud to work with leading corporate renewables customers like Microsoft to help them meet their operational and sustainability goals,” said Jim Shield, Invenergy’s EVP and chief commercial officer. “This investment in North Carolina reflects the increasingly compelling value of solar power for customers to meet their energy needs, while also creating economic development opportunities for local communities.”

Microsoft logoThe Wilkinson Solar Energy Center is expected to generate $20 million in local economic investment through tax payments, landowner lease payments, and wages and benefits for employees. It is scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2019 and is estimated to create more than 500 jobs during construction.

North Carolina ranks second in installed solar capacity among U.S. states, and with more than 256,620 modules, the Wilkinson Solar Energy Facility will be among the largest solar installations in the state.

About Invenergy
We are innovators building a sustainable world. Invenergy and its affiliated companies develop, own, and operate large-scale sustainable energy generation and storage facilities in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Invenergy has successfully developed more than 22,200 megawatts of projects, including wind, solar, and natural gas power generation as well as advanced energy storage projects.

About Microsoft
Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.


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Tackling the conservation crisis with the right data

Tourism is big business, accounting for 10.4 percent of the world’s GDP and supporting one out of every 10 jobs on the planet. For economically fragile communities it can be a lifeline, spurring business development and creating living-wage jobs. But sometimes this growth comes at a price.

The top twenty countries now represent nearly two-thirds of all international arrivals. This concentrated tourism means some of the world’s most beautiful sites are in danger of being “loved to death,” according to a new report from McKinsey & Company, “Coping With Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations.”

An estimated 32 million people will visit Greece in 2018, and just five small islands—Santorini, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, and Mykonos—will receive much of the volume, stressing their infrastructure and ecosystems. The Peruvian government has tried to limit the number of visitors to Machu Picchu, because of concerns about irreversible ecologic impacts. Tourism hotspot Venice is suffering because the vast crowds that descend on its 100 small islands every year displace locals. And nearly 80 percent of the reefs in Thailand’s popular Koh Khai islands have been damaged by humans, causing the government to close three islands, states the McKinsey report.

In nearly every tourist attraction location, governments are struggling to manage and mitigate the environmental impacts, which include waste, erosion, defacement of artifacts, habitat loss, and water stress. Popular tourism sites provide a compelling example of why national and local governments need to craft long-range sustainability strategies accompanied by specific actions that start today to protect their valuable ecosystems.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is taking the lead on assessing the economic and ecologic politics of tourism. More importantly for the countries, economies, and ecosystems in question, TNC is using the power of the cloud and AI to provide insights about how to develop a more sustainable path forward.

Using big data to protect fragile tourism destinations

TNC has worked for years to protect and conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Their goal is to enable a world where people and nature thrive. To create that world, people need better and more accurate information to understand what is happening today and why, to prove the economic value of investing in data-led solutions for conservation issues, and to pursue focused actions to preserve nature for future generations.

TNC has historically relied on traditional and academic research to build a business case for sustainability. However, the organization also has lacked a way to combine that research with big data and social media to create a compelling rationale for protecting fragile ecologic systems, such as coral reefs, cities prone to flooding, and more.

Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, which is part of Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, helps organizations use artificial intelligence (AI) to solve the world’s thorniest environmental challenges. Microsoft became a global partner of TNC with its Upgrade Your World program, launched in conjunction with the Windows 10 release in 2015. Backed by Microsoft’s resources, TNC can now use data in a more powerful way, and even work toward dissolving boundaries between organizations that deal with environmental issues, such as urban planning, economic development, corporate sustainability, and ecology preservation groups.

“If we don’t have proof or numbers on the important facets of nature and why we need to protect it, we sound vague,” explains Dr. Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “My first thought was that with advances in technology, we can show local economies how valuable nature is. If we can show them where nature provides significant economic returns, then we can do a much better job of persuading them to look after nature.”

Artificial intelligence improves conservation decision-making

Through an AI for Earth grant fulfilled by NetHope, TNC leveraged Microsoft Azure cloud services to help link data with AI and machine-learning tools to develop decision models that can be shared among cross-disciplinary organizations. Each group can use the models to prove, plan, and track the impact of sustainability initiatives, providing economic data decision-makers with the information they need to drive policy-making and investing.

Emerging technology is also helping break down information silos that for years have stood in the way of better scientific insights. For example, Esri, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Spatial Development International, and the Natural Capital Project worked with TNC and Microsoft to brainstorm conservation applications based on Azure’s cognitive services API. One groundbreaking result is TNC’s Mapping Ocean Wealth initiative. The nonprofit crafted an AI-powered web app in tandem with Microsoft AI for Earth and Esri, building the software and training the algorithm.

The app can precisely analyze geo-tagged photos that are uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr, processing millions of images in hours. Machine learning helps the app distinguish between a scuba diver in a fragile area versus one in a pool, for instance. By matching the frequency and number of coral-related photos to economic tourism data, data scientists can quantify the value of coral reefs, kilometer by kilometer.

Data visualization reveals the true value of natural resources

When TNC leaders shared its AI-powered map of the Florida Keys coral reefs to local officials, the policymakers realized that in high-tourism areas in their waters, every square kilometer of reef accounts for up to more than $1 million in revenue each year. “People are starting to have ‘aha’ moments,” Spalding says. “Seeing that hard data helps localities plan and realize their natural resources truly are precious.”

Those insights, delivered with powerful data visualizations, can help local agencies balance tourism goals with preservation objectives. That type of decision-making is already occurring. In Cancun, Mexico, local hotels are contributing to a voluntary tax fund to repair the area’s “million-dollar reefs” when they are damaged after natural or other disasters. TNC plans to run its app in real time to rapidly identify such changes, which will empower groups to accelerate repair efforts, translating to a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Similarly, TNC has teamed with Minecraft to create an immersive world that enables players to protect and restore coral reefs through play. Players can place five types of coral reefs in Minecraft’s in-game oceans and use the Coral Crafter Skin Pack to create character costumes, learning about the importance of ecologic preservation.

“Thanks to our work with Microsoft, we have the incredible opportunity to leverage technology to link science to actionable planning,” says Zach Ferdaña, program manager at The Nature Conservancy. “We’re using AI, machine learning, and other technology tools to accelerate our impact and increase coastal communities’ resilience. We’re hacking the future.”

Read the case study.

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How working like a beaver is helping to replenish water

On a crisp autumn day just outside the town of Peshashtin in central Washington, I could be seen alongside seven other Microsoft employees hauling bunches of dogwood and alder saplings down a steep embankment in Darby Canyon to the trickling creek below. For a day, we stepped away from our standing desks and back-to-back Skype meetings to roll up our sleeves and work with Trout Unlimited on a fascinating project, constructing beaver dam analogs – BDAs – on Darby Creek.

Let me answer the two obvious questions here. First, what are BDAs? They are lines of pilings driven into the streambed with branches woven between them that mimic the functionality of beaver dams, generating a host of water availability and quality benefits, such as reducing sediments and stream temperature in the summer. Secondly, why are Microsoft employees weaving beaver dams in central Washington? Believe it or not, this project represents the future of our approach to water, and specifically water replenishment.

Microsoft has been taking actions, within our operations and with our partners, to use less water and preserve this vital natural resource. Overall, our approach rests on four cornerstones: understanding water risks, setting water reduction goals, investing in replenishment, and fostering digital transformation in the water space. Increasingly, we’re looking beyond conservation to include replenishment in this water strategy.

By supporting water replenishment, we have an opportunity to balance our consumption of water, while generating tangible water benefits for the ecosystems and communities where we operate. As a changing climate and competing demands for water put greater pressure on this essential resource, it’s important for companies like Microsoft to engage in water replenishment, particularly in water-stressed regions where we have substantial operations.

One such region is central Washington, where we have datacenter operations, and just over the mountains, our global headquarters in Redmond. Given the proximity and import to our business, it just made sense as the location for our initial investments in water replenishment. In addition to the BDA project, Microsoft partnered with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to support projects that will increase flows and habitat conditions for migrating fish, remove fish passage barriers, and test new irrigation techniques that can improve the quality and quantity of fruit, while using less water. These projects are designed to produce tangible benefits that are meaningful for the aquatic environment and for the agricultural sector in the area.

Our work won’t end here. Microsoft is a global company with an operational presence around the world and we want our water stewardship program to span the globe as well. To accomplish this, we’re evaluating what we’ve learned in central Washington and are experimenting with ways to apply it more broadly. We know that as we explore scaling replenishment, we’ll need to keep some key factors in mind:

  • Replenishment investments should be informed by what’s happening on the ground in a region with respect to water – this could vary from lack of availability of water for aquatic species to inadequate access to drinking water for people. The famous axiom “all politics are local” could be applied to water, with “water” replacing “politics.”
  • Working with partners who understand what is happening on the ground is critically important, and we need to collaborate with them and listen to their guidance.
  • Replenishment investments should be directed toward activities that will contribute to alleviating water stress.

We endeavor to make our operational commitments serve a higher value than just improving our operations – from carbon neutrality, renewable energy, AI for Earth, and beyond, we are focused on making changes that can scale globally and deliver benefits well outside of our four walls. As we explore the role Microsoft can play in water, we’ll look to and build off the work, experiences and lessons learned along the way to advance an environmentally sustainable agenda. Follow this blog to learn about our progress.

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Buying renewable energy should be easy — here’s one way to make it less complex

By Brian Janous, Microsoft General Manager of Energy and Sustainability; Kenneth Davies, Microsoft Director of Innovation for Energy Strategy & Research; and Lee Taylor, cofounder and CEO, REsurety

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that corporate procurement of renewable energy, primarily through power purchase agreements (PPAs), has had on the overall renewable market. In less than a decade, renewable energy created from corporate PPAs went from zero to more than 13 gigawatts in the U.S. alone.  Microsoft is one of the largest players in this market, beginning with a 110-megawatt wind project in Texas in 2013 to a portfolio of more than 1.2 gigawatts in six states and three continents.

This rapid growth, both within our portfolio and beyond, is because these deals are good for business. Renewable energy agreements help companies meet sustainability commitments customers increasingly expect and – if structured properly – do so in a way that provides a hedge against the risk of rising electricity costs on the open market. The fuel for renewable energy projects – the wind and the sun – are free, enabling a fixed price over the length of the agreement. However, as the market has matured, it’s become clear that other risks and complexities exist within the PPA structure that may inhibit their effectiveness as risk management tools. The failure to simplify this complex process and mitigate the risk assumed by the buyer could endanger the corporate procurement market, causing it to slow or stall out completely.

We want to see continued growth of renewables. That is why today, Microsoft and REsurety, along with their partners at Nephila Climate (“Nephila”) and Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, Inc.’s Alternative Risk Transfer unit (Allianz) announced a new solution that mitigates those risks. We’re calling it a volume firming agreement (VFA), and Microsoft, in addition to co-developing it, will become the first adopter.

The concept of a VFA has its roots in late 2010, when Nephila Capital approached several of the first corporate renewable energy buyers with the idea of helping them manage the risks inherent in PPAs. At the time, however, the idea was just that. Unable to find a corporate buyer willing to put in the effort to help co-develop what would become the VFA, Nephila elected instead to sponsor an MBA project at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, led by Lee Taylor. Upon graduation, Taylor turned that concept into a company, REsurety. In 2016, Nephila and REsurety finally found that corporate partner in Microsoft, when we signed a PPA with Allianz for the output of the 178-megawatt Bloom wind project in Kansas. This was the first Proxy Generation PPA, winning honors as North American Wind Project of the Year, and laying the groundwork for today’s VFA.

VFAs are intended to be a simple fix to a big challenge with renewable energy PPAs, namely that these deals expose the buyer to all the weather-related risks of power production, and the inherent intermittent nature of wind and solar means there are hourly issues to be addressed. Put simply, the power needs of buyers are static but the power from the project varies on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.

While it’s true that the fixed-price nature of PPAs provide the buyer some protection against a long-term increase in price, the hourly variability of wind and solar creates near-term complexity and risk. In periods when the wind or solar project is producing more than average, the market value of this energy is often lower due to the impact of additional supply in the market. Conversely, in periods when it is producing less than average, the market price is often high.  In other words, volume and price move inversely. This variability and the financial impact are difficult for even the savviest energy buyers and a substantial deterrent to smaller companies, as well as retailers, looking to engage in the renewables market.

But what is undesirable to buyers is very attractive to others, namely insurance companies whose core business revolves around taking weather-related risks, including temperature, rain, snow, wind and so on. VFAs effectively remove the risk related to how future weather conditions will impact the financial value of a PPA from buyers and reallocates it to people who want that risk.

As the market for VFAs and similar products grow, we believe it will create new incentives for those who now bear these risks to procure storage resources and other assets capable of physically balancing the intermittency of renewables. Through the aggregation of risk, these insurers will be able to procure resources at economies of scale that even Microsoft is unable to achieve. In that way, today’s financial firming solution is tomorrow’s physical firming solution, accelerating the adoption of storage and other resources required to eventually transition to a 100 percent carbon-free power generation system.

VFAs are not a replacement for PPAs, nor are they a product Microsoft is selling. They are contracts that simply sit atop new PPAs, or existing PPAs, mitigating the risk to the buyer. Microsoft has signed three of these contracts with Allianz, in conjunction with their partners at Nephila, covering three wind projects in the U.S. in Texas, Illinois and Kansas, totaling almost 500 megawatts. As Microsoft continues to purchase renewable energy to power our operations, we anticipate utilizing VFAs to firm the energy and match our consumption on an hourly basis.

At Microsoft, we are committed to driving a more sustainable future beyond our own four walls. That is why our corporate energy commitments are far broader than just megawatts. We intend to support and enable the transformation of the energy sector using our buying power and innovations so everyone can benefit. REsurety is also focused on enabling the growth of renewable energy by providing tools to understand and manage risks.

The partnership between our two organizations leverages deep expertise in markets, risk and the challenges buyers face in these markets. That is why we’re confident that innovations like the VFA will make it cheaper and easier to procure renewable energy, enabling corporate buyers of all sizes, as well as retailers, to play a role in enabling the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

We invite other corporate buyers to take a more in-depth look at our white paper expounding on the role of Proxy Generation PPAs in the implementation of VFAs, co-authored by Microsoft, REsurety and Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe LLP, available today here, or contact us. We’re looking forward to a future where even more corporations can participate in the renewable energy market, which would be a big step toward a low-carbon future for the planet.

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Beyond our four walls: How Microsoft is accelerating sustainability progress

Our planet is changing — sea levels are rising, weather is becoming more extreme and our natural resources are being depleted faster than the earth’s ecosystems can restore them. These changes pose serious threats to the future of all life on our tiny blue dot, and they challenge us to find new solutions, work together and leverage the diversity of human potential to help right the course.

The good news is that progress is being made across the globe, and non-state actors, from cities to companies to individual citizens, are setting bold commitments and accelerating their work on climate change. But it’s also clear that we all must raise our ambitions, couple that with action and work more swiftly than ever.

At Microsoft, we fully understand and embrace this challenge. That is why, this week, at the Global Climate Action Summit, Microsoft is sharing our vision for a sustainable future — one where everyone everywhere is experiencing and deploying the power of technology to help address climate change and build a more resilient future. We are optimistic about what progress can be made because we are already seeing results of this technology-first enablement approach.

Today, we are unveiling five new tools, partnerships and the results of pilot projects that are already reducing emissions in manufacturing and advancing environmental research and showing immense potential to disrupt the building and energy sectors for a lower-emission future.

These include:

  • A new, open-source tool to find, use and incentivize lower-carbon building materials: To create low-carbon buildings, we need to choose low-carbon building materials. But right now, choosing these materials is challenging because the data is not readily available and what we do have lacks transparency to ensure it’s accurate. We are the first large corporate user of a new tool to track the carbon emissions of raw building materials, introduced by Skanska and supported by the University of Washington Carbon Leadership Forum, Interface and C-Change Labs, called the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3). We’ll use this in our new campus remodel. Our early estimates are that a low-carbon building in Seattle has approximately half the carbon emissions of an average building, so this could have a substantial impact on reducing carbon emissions in our remodel and eventually the entire built environment. We’re proud to not only be piloting it, but that this open-source tool is also running on Microsoft Azure.
  • The results of a “factory of the future” and solar-panel deployment at one of our largest suppliers of China: We partnered with our supplier’s management team to develop and install an energy-smart building solution running on Microsoft Azure to monitor and address issues as they emerge, saving energy and money. Additionally, Microsoft funded a solar panel installation, which generated more than 250,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the past fiscal year. This integrated solution is estimated to reduce emissions by approximately 3 million pounds a year.

The successful pilot of a grid-interactive energy storage battery: ​Solving storage is a critical piece of transforming the energy sector. That is why we’re excited to share the results of a new pilot in Virginia, in partnership with Eaton and PJM Interconnection. We used a battery that typically sits in our datacenter as a backup system, hooked it up to the grid to receive signals about when to take in power, when to store it and when to discharge to support the reliability of the system and integration of renewable energy. With thousands of batteries as part of our backup power systems at our datacenters, this pilot has the potential to rapidly scale storage solutions, allowing datacenters to smooth out the unpredictability of wind and solar.

  • New grantees and results from our AI for Earth program: Since we first introduced this grant, training and innovation program last year, we’ve experienced 200 percent growth. We are now supporting 137 grantees in more than 40 countries around the world, as well as doubling the number of larger featured projects we support. We’ve seen early results, too, allowing many people outside the grant program to benefit from our work, allowing us to process more than 10 trillion pixels in ten minutes and less than $50.
  • New LinkedIn online training module for sustainability, the Sustainable Learning Path: LinkedIn is providing new training courses to enable people everywhere to learn and gain job skills to participate in the clean energy economy and low-carbon future. The Sustainable Learning Path offers six hours of expert-created content; initial courses include an overview of sustainability strategies and introductions to LEED credentials and sustainable design. All six courses are unlocked until the end of October, in celebration of the Global Climate Action Summit, and can be accessed here.

While these are just the first proof points of the potential of technology to accelerate the pace of change beyond our four walls, they build on decades of sustainability progress within our operations.  These include operating 100 percent carbon neutral since 2012, purchasing more than 1 gigawatt of renewable energy on three continents, committing to reduce our operational carbon footprint by 75 percent by 2030, and a host of other initiatives. As meaningful as this operational progress is, we know it’s not enough. As a global technology company, we have a responsibility and a tremendous opportunity to help change the course of our planet.

As we look to the future, we’ll realize this opportunity in a few ways. We will use our operations as a test bed for innovation and share new insights about what works. We will work with our customers and suppliers to drive efficiencies that lead to tangible carbon reductions. We will continue to increase access to cloud and AI tools, especially among climate researchers and conservation groups, and work together to develop new tools that can be deployed by others in the field.

We are not naïve. Technology is not a panacea. Time and resources are short, and the task immense. But we refuse to believe that it is insurmountable or too late to build a better future, and we are convinced that technology can play a pivotal role in enabling that progress.

That optimism is borne out of our experience, lessons learned and the drive to create a better future that is core to Microsoft. At GCAS, I will be joined by 10 Microsoft and LinkedIn sustainability leaders, who will be sharing more details about this approach and the news outlined at panel sessions throughout the week, showcasing some of our technology solutions at events we are hosting and supporting the effort with more than 50 employees volunteering their time at GCAS. We are also proud to be an official sponsor of GCAS.

You can find our Microsoft delegation at the following events during the summit, as well as many others throughout the week. And we encourage you to follow us @Microsoft_Green for a full view of our conference activities and engagements, and the official hashtags for news of the event at #GCAS2018 #StepUp 2018.

Find Microsoft at the Global Climate Action Summit — event highlights

September 11, 8:00 a.m. PT: Sustainable Food Services Panel (LinkedIn hosting)

September 12, 9:00 a.m. PT: We Are Still In Forum

 September 12, 2:00 p.m. PT: “Energy, Transportation & Innovation – a Conversation with U.S. Climate Alliance Governors & Business Leaders” (Microsoft hosting)

  • Speaker: Shelley McKinley, General Manager for Technology and Civic Responsibility at Microsoft
  • Watch the livestream: and use #USCAxGCAS to submit questions on Twitter during the event

September 13, 9:00 a.m. PT: World Economic Forum: 4th IR for Earth

  • Speaker: Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer, Microsoft

September 13, 1:30 p.m. PT: GCAS Breakout Session – “What We Eat and How It’s Grown: Food Systems and Climate”

September 13, 3:00 p.m. PT: Meeting the Paris Goal: Strategies for Carbon Neutrality (Microsoft hosting)

  • Speaker: Elizabeth Willmott, Carbon Program Lead

September 13, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. PT: We Are Still In Reception at Microsoft

September 14, 8:30 a.m. PT: Clean Energy in Emerging Markets (Microsoft hosting)

September 14, 11:00 a.m. PT: Climate Action Career Fair (LinkedIn hosting)

  • Speaker: Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer