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Microsoft is changing the way it buys renewable energy

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It’s putting more pressure on local power grids to get clean

Helen Kendrick of SunPower Corp. walks alongside SunPower Co
Solar panels that were installed on four buildings on the Microsoft Corp. campus in Mountain View, California, Wednesday, April 25, 2007. 
Photo by Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With a new strategy for how it purchases renewable energy, Microsoft hopes to push electricity grids to get clean. The tech giant is now focused on making a local impact in the places where it operates.

Since 2012, the company has purchased enough renewable energy to match how much juice it uses to power its operations globally. But Microsoft isn’t actually running on renewables 100 percent of the time. All of those clean energy purchases don’t necessarily connect to the same electricity grids that the company is plugged into.

That could change if Microsoft is successful in its new goal. By 2030, it wants to make sure that its clean energy purchases are actually feeding into the local grids where it operates. The move is part of a broader push within tech and environmental advocacy to ensure that big energy guzzlers help phase out dirty fossil fuels wherever they work.

“[In 2012], we were like a kid building with those big chunky wooden blocks. The tools and the resources we had were somewhat rudimentary,” says Brian Janous, general manager of energy at Microsoft. But those building blocks are evolving, Janous says.

The company has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, meaning it plans to capture and store more carbon dioxide than it emits. The carbon removal technology necessary to achieve that goal doesn’t exist at scale yet, but Microsoft is funneling money toward its development.

Using less electricity in the first place will be a key part to achieving Microsoft’s climate aims. As part of that effort, the company has tried submerging its servers in the ocean and in liquid baths to make them more energy-efficient.

When it comes to using renewable energy, Microsoft and other companies with goals to tackle climate change were limited to how much renewable energy electricity grids could provide them. In the US, renewable energy still only makes up about 20 percent of the electricity mix. So companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook often rely on Renewable Energy Credits to show that they’re funneling money to renewable projects elsewhere, which help offset some of their greenhouse gas emissions.

Moving forward, that won’t be enough for Microsoft to fulfill its new climate target. To get enough locally generated renewable energy, the company is starting to change its power purchase agreements to demand more of its energy suppliers.

“What we’re moving towards is a model where we’re really working with our providers to say, ‘Look, we have this goal and we’re putting out this goal publicly.’ Every hour of every day, we need zero carbon resources being generated,” Janous tells The Verge.

Microsoft is now one of the largest corporate buyers of renewable energy in the world, but it isn’t alone in its new emphasis on local impact. Adobe, Google, Hewlett Packard, and several environmental groups sent a letter to the Biden administration in March advocating for policies that support what they call “higher-impact electricity procurement.” That’s a similar model of sourcing renewable energy from nearby sources on a 24/7 basis.

Google set a goal last year of running on clean electricity around the clock by 2030. On an even broader scale, President Biden has set a goal of getting US electricity grids to run on 100 percent clean energy by 2035.