How Microsoft Plans To Eliminate All The Carbon It Ever Emitted

In January 2020, Microsoft launched a company-wide focus on sustainability by announcing an ambitious goal and a detailed plan to become carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 to remove from the environment more carbon than they have emitted since they were founded.

To oversee this plan, they have assembled a team of experts including Microsoft Chief Environmental Officer, Lucas Joppa, and hired veterans of the energy sector like Darryl Willis, who is a geophysicist by training and spent 28 years with BP and a stint with Google before becoming Microsoft’s Vice President of Energy. 

Last week I spoke with Mr. Willis, who detailed the efforts Microsoft is making to achieve these lofty goals.

I started out by asking about the source of Microsoft’s emissions. It’s obvious how a car or a coal-fired power plant generates emissions, so I wanted a better understanding of the nature of Microsoft’s emissions.

“When it comes to overall energy consumption”, Mr. Willis explained, “China is first, second is the U.S., and the third is datacenters.” He added that energy demand is expected to continue growing, and thus there is a growing need to address the associated carbon emissions.

Mr. Willis said that datacenters are the primary source of Microsoft’s emissions, but they have pledged to power their datacenter operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025. To address historical emissions, they launched a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund that invests in global carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies. 

Source: Microsoft

He went on to explain that Microsoft identified the energy sector as one that generates and uses a lot of data, but not to its fullest extent. The company realized it was great at analyzing and leveraging data and brought in Mr. Willis for his industry expertise to better understand where the challenges and opportunities are to help customers make sense of their data and navigate the energy transition.  

Now, since Microsoft made its pledge last year, the company has seen a lot of interest in what it’s doing not only because of what it offers from a digital standpoint, but because it is openly talking about its relationship to carbon.  Mr. Willis also said Microsoft has incumbent relationships with about 70-80% of the energy companies through its relationship with hardware and software, and has reached out to many of these companies to figure out how they can work together to address the growing problem of carbon emissions.

Project Highlights

Microsoft is involved in numerous partnerships with energy companies and governments to achieve its objectives. The company supplied a sampling of those projects:

  • Alaska AirlinesALK: At a corporate level, we’re working to reduce carbon emissions with flights powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) provided by industry leader SkyNRG. The SAF, supplied by SkyNRG and produced from waste oil, is an important option for the aviation industry to reduce CO2 emissions on a life-cycle basis. This U.S. partnership is a first of its kind model for other companies and organizations committed to reducing the environmental impact of business air travel.   
  • BP: BP shares Microsoft’s vision for a cleaner and better-connected future, and the impact begins with digital transformation and a vision for new technologies to meet carbon negative and net-zero goals. By consolidating and modernizing BP’s data and workloads on Azure, Microsoft will enable BP to drive digital innovation in its business by helping it operate more efficiently. From finance and HR to engineering and analytics, this partnership will equip the industry workforce with the skills and technologies to achieve sustainable energy production and delivery. This builds on our work to identify synergies between Microsoft’s Smart Cities initiative and BP’s Clean Cities vision to help cities achieve their sustainability goals. 
  • Shell: Together, Shell and Microsoft already develop, test and roll out technologies, including those built on Azure, Microsoft 365 and Power Platform, to push the boundaries of what can be achieved. In this new alliance, we have a bolder ambition to develop products and services using our expertise and technology to help customers, suppliers and partners: 1) calculate and understand their environmental impact, 2) capture, visualize, and process reliable data, and 3) offer practical solutions to lower their carbon footprints.  
  • Northern Lights: We joined the Northern Lights carbon capture and storage (CCS) project as the technology partner, working with the Norwegian Government, Equinor, Shell, and Total. The project aims to explore how to capture and transport CO2 from industrial emissions and store it safely without releasing it into the atmosphere. Details of this partnership include Microsoft exploring: 
  1. Integration of its digital expertise into the Northern Lights project  
  2. Use of Northern Lights’ CO2 transport and storage facility as part of the Microsoft’s portfolio of carbon projects  
  3. Ways to invest in the effective development of the Northern Lights project  
  4. Advocacy of policies that help accelerate the contribution CCS can make to meeting Europe’s climate-neutrality goal 
  • SEE Airtricity: We’re working with SSE Airtricity, Ireland’s largest provider of 100% green energy, to bring solar panels to schools across Ireland. The new project demonstrates the feasibility of agreements to install solar panels on rooftops distributed across towns with existing grid connections and use Azure IoT technologies to aggregate the accumulated energy production for carbon offset accounting. The project is also a blueprint for how energy providers can adapt as the falling price of solar panels enables distributed electric power generation throughout the existing electric power grid. 
  • Houston Ion Building: On Dec. 17, we announced that we’re joining the Ion startup and energy transition community. Once the Ion building is completed, this facility will host Azure engineers with deep expertise in cloud computing, data/AI, product development, and subject matter experts from the energy industry. Their primary purpose is to work with customers, partners and start-ups to support and accelerate the energy industry’s transformation and Microsoft’s commitment to sustainability, bolstering start-up community and energy transition technology. 
  • Microsoft supports and sits on the steering committee of Project Astra, a collaboration led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin with Environmental Defense Fund, ExxonMobilXOM, Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and Pioneer Natural Resources CompanyPXD, which aims to use advanced technology to measure and minimize methane emissions from oil and gas production sites like those in the Permian Basin.

In addition, Microsoft launched a partnership for 500 megawatts of renewable energy, and is engaged in projects to utilize hydrogen (the details of which Mr. Willis couldn’t discuss), eliminate dependency on diesel generators, and invest in communities disproportionately affected by environmental challenges.

Mr. Willis concluded: “The demand for energy continues to increase…energy is the one thing that everyone needs, but sometimes everyone loves to hate. We want to make sure we’re instrumental in playing a role in helping to deliver energy to the world and working with customers and companies and countries, frankly, who are trying to deliver clean energy to the world. The energy transition is real, it’s upon us. It is accelerating and it is hard. It’s going to take all of us to deliver the energy transition. We see ourselves as being an accelerator to that journey.”

Follow Robert Rapier on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.