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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


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Why Microsoft thinks the future of water depends on the future of technology innovation

Clean drinking water is critical to all life, but unfortunately it is not easily available for everyone around the globe. According to the World Health Organization, nearly a billion people around the world lack a basic drinking water service, and at least two billion use a drinking water source that is contaminated with feces.

This situation will only become more acute as populations grow and the planet continues to warm. In fact, WHO suggests that by 2025 nearly half of the world’s population will have a difficult time accessing clean, drinkable water. In areas already stricken by drought or lacking in water sanitation facilities, things will only become direr as climate change exacerbates the strain on water resources. Beyond the immediate humanitarian impact of water shortages, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that water availability and quality could become a primary pressure point for society under climate change. Given this, it’s no surprise that access to water routinely makes the top five of the list of global risks identified annually by the World Economic Forum.

This view of the future, of course, presumes we continue business as usual. But water is in the midst of a digital transformation that promises a much brighter future, and nowhere is this more apparent than at World Water Week. I had the pleasure of attending this yearly event on behalf of Microsoft last week, delivering our vision of the promise of technology to address both water quality and quantity issues. I was joined by hundreds of governments, businesses and civil society leaders, who also shared their reasons for being optimistic about the future of water.

In addition to speaking, we made a new commitment. Microsoft is proud to join the UN CEO Water Mandate, a collaborative effort of corporations and NGOs designed to assist companies in the development, implementation and disclosure of corporate water stewardship practices and policies.

We’ve diligently pursued water stewardship across our global operations, and one of our most ambitious projects was our new Silicon Valley campus. Last year, we announced that campus would be one of the first net-zero potable water tech campuses in the world. 100% of the buildings non-drinking water will come from rainfall or on-site recycled water – beyond drinking fountains and sinks not a drop of water for more than 2,000 employees and 15 acres of landscape will come from municipal sources. In addition, we’re designing our campus with the nearby wetlands in mind and taking steps to improve our local water environment.

As a global technology company, we know we can have an even greater impact by empowering others beyond our four walls. One example of how we’ve applied technology to the water space is the Water Risk Monetizer, a powerful tool built in partnership with Ecolab and Trucost. The tool shows the costs of using water in every step of business operation, from manufacturing to delivery, and can give companies an idea of how those costs will increase if water becomes a limited resource. This helps them manage water more effectively and has the potential to reduce water consumption in many different industries.

We’re also working to apply AI to the issue of water. Through our AI for Earth program, a $50M over five-year program, Microsoft is putting AI tools into the hands of individuals and organizations working on the frontlines of environmental challenges, including water. To date, 20 percent of our 137 AI for Earth grantees are working on water-related projects. Our grantees work on the breadth of issues – some use AI to map coastal ecosystems to create a more accurate view of coastal resilience and inform real-time conservation and disaster response efforts, while others work on the impact of storm water or Superfund sites on local water resources, and still others are working to better predict, track and prevent floods. We’re particularly excited about the use of AI to inform and address water scarcity. WetDATA is creating a water data and innovation hub that collects and disseminates information on water scarcity and risks to drive informed, data-driven, decisions regarding water practices. They also encourage researchers to discover and innovate new ways to conserve water with the hopes of driving water sustainability in a myriad of industries.

We’re looking forward to expanding our work, both within our operations and through AI for Earth, in the coming year. After a week at SIWI, I’m even more encouraged about the digital transformation of water. We think that the glass is half full of water solutions already and are confident that those working on today’s pressing water challenges will be able to use AI and machine learning to fill the glass the rest of the way.

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5 years later: Growing a global portfolio of renewable wind energy

We started our renewable energy journey in earnest with our first power purchase agreement in 2013 – Keechi wind farm, a 110 MW project in a quiet, rural county west of Dallas. Already wind energy was a growing force in Texas, with 12,000 MW online in 2013.

In the past five years, Texas has nearly doubled that generation, growing to 22,000MW of wind generation capacity, fueled in no small part by corporate demand from companies like Microsoft. We, too, have grown – from 110 MW in 2013, we now have a global portfolio of more than 1.2 gigawatts of renewable energy, and more than half of that is from wind.

This American Wind Week, we are celebrating the progress that’s been made across the nation in the past several years. This is a win-win-win story, as new wind projects generate clean power and new jobs and economic growth in communities from coast to coast, and every state in between, all while lowering the carbon footprint of the U.S. But there’s still much to be done. While some forecasts indicate that renewable energy could power 80% of the U.S. by 2050, as of today only 17% of the U.S.’s energy needs are currently met by renewables.

How do we close the gap between potential and production? This is a question we’ve been increasingly focused on as our portfolio has grown. Microsoft is a large energy consumer, a result of our growing cloud business and the increasingly digitized, connected world that relies on it. As a result, we’ve set corporate commitments to grow the percentage of renewable energy powering those operations. We’re well on our way to reaching our 60 percent target ahead of the 2020 goal.

This progress is important – but insufficient. Even as we and other large technology companies march towards 100 percent targets, our energy loads are still only less than one percent of total energy consumption in the world.

That means we need to do more than just buy renewable energy to get from potential to production. That is why our goal is larger than transforming our operations. We’re focused on how we can help transform energy markets and green the grids. That means where we buy matters. Our first deal was in Texas, a booming wind market. Since then, we’ve expanded both wind and solar purchases into less likely markets, like Ireland and Virginia. We have operations there, which gives us a seat at the table and a stake in the future greening of the market. It also means how we buy matters. We’ve created new deal structures that lower risk and/or lower costs for others to participate in the market. Finally, it means that we care deeply about energy transformation beyond procurement. We use our R&D, technology and operations to test new solutions, like integrated energy storage batteries in wind turbines, grid-integrated batteries and software and AI-enabled autonomous grids for utilities serving more renewable loads.

This regionalized strategy, focused on opening access to markets and enabling a transformation of grids, is where the future lies, for our business, sustainability and the economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind turbine technicians and solar panel installers are the nation’s two fastest growing jobs in 2017. There are over 105,000 Americans working in wind power, and as wind becomes a more ubiquitous source of power it is expected to grow past its current bench marker of supplying over 6% of the U.S.’s electricity. The clean air benefits and the industry jobs make wind power an $8 billion dollar industry, and it has nowhere to go but up from here. Since 2009, there has been a 65% reduction in the cost of wind power, giving businesses added financial incentive to invest in wind power and setting the industry up to continue to grow.

We’re excited about the future of wind in the U.S. and around the globe. Learn more about our five-year journey in Illinois, Kansas, Wyoming, Ireland and the Netherlands, and stay tuned for updates on where the wind is blowing us next here at the Green Blog.