How Microsoft is going green

Biodiesel trucks, solar-powered data centers are just a couple of the initiatives getting Microsoft on environmentally friendly track

Microsoft, with 70,000 employees spread out across the world, is deep into a corporatewide evaluation of how it can become a more environmentally friendly corporation.

The effort encompasses hardware, software, data centers and Microsoft's role as a corporate citizen. The hope is to initiate Microsoft's people, products and programs into the green revolution.

Microsoft's early results include a PVC-product-packaging purge begun in 2005 that has resulted in the elimination of 1.5 million pounds of the environmentally unfriendly plastic, as well as a soon-to-open Microsoft data center near Chicago that is a state-of-the-art monument to energy efficiency.

As part of its green revolution, Microsoft also is partnering with such movers and shakers as former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Foundation to discover how the world's largest cities can reduce carbon output and greenhouse gases. Microsoft also is part of The Green Grid consortium and Climate Savers, two industrywide power-efficiency initiatives.

In July, Microsoft put US$500,000 into university grants to stimulate research on environmentally sensitive computing, and is turning a green light on its sixth-annual Imagine Cup software development challenge; the theme for 2008 is environmental sustainability.

The green monster

The company's effort is not all self-motivation and altruism, however.

Microsoft was jabbed in November by the pointedly critical watchdog group Greenpeace, which berated the company for its 2011 time frame for eliminating toxic chemicals from its electronic products. Competitors Apple, Dell and others are targeting 2008 and 2009. After the criticism, however, Greenpeace lauded Microsoft for contacting the organization, updating its Web site with a list of banned substances and making immediate changes where possible.

In addition, green proselytizers have attacked Vista recently for its energy appetite and for the fact that many users upgrading to the operating system need to acquire new PCs and dispose of old ones.

To coordinate the proactive and the reactive, Microsoft last November appointed Rob Bernard to the newly minted position of chief environmental strategist, and told him to look at all aspects of the company and initiate improvements.

"My role will be to provide more structure, guidance and assistance in helping people think through the problems and challenges and how to address those," Bernard says. He plans to start building out a staff in January to facilitate the mind-set shift. "The real scale comes when we take hundreds of employees and get them to work on the issues in the context of their jobs," he says.

Results are mounting

Microsoft is getting results already. A shuttle-bus service for employees launched in September at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters takes 30,000 commuter miles off the road per day. More than 30% of Microsoft's workforce is in commuter programs or groups, according to the company.

A 2006 solar-power retrofit at its research center in Mountain View, California, provides 15% of that building's energy needs and generates 400 kilowatts of power at peak capacity. Microsoft's Quincy, Wash., data center runs on hydro power and the facility's trucks on biodiesel. The Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher program is turning out 5,000 refurbished machines for reuse per month.

Microsoft also is committing billions of dollars for new data centers around the globe that, although they use a lot of energy, incorporate cutting-edge power efficiencies. New facilities are planned for Ireland and Russia's Siberia region, and ground was broken in 2007 for another in San Antonio, Texas.

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John Fontana

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