updated 06:23 am EDT, Mon September 24, 2012
Threat of continued wasting forced fine reduction
Microsoft wasted a vast amount of electricity last year in order to avoid paying a fine. According to the New York Times, "millions of watts" were deliberately used to meet estimations on a Washington data center's energy use. The penalty of $210,000 was avoided, but was then followed by threats to continue wasting energy until the fine was lowered.
The Grant County Public Utility District spends a considerable amount of time working on balancing its supply of power to customers, and so requires large customers, such as data centers, to submit power usage forecasts for the year. After a number of years where the forecasts were not deemed to be accurate, the Utility levied penalties under the Rate Schedule 99 provision in December. Only two customers were found to be outside the margin for error: Microsoft and Yahoo, and of the two, Yahoo decided to pay its $94,608 fine.
At that point, Microsoft threatened to waste high amounts of energy by running giant heaters at the center for no reason at all, unless the penalty was significantly reduced. The company burned an additional 5 to 7 million watts in mid-December, enough power to cover half the town of Quincy, Washington. A letter delivered to the Utility on December 16th said the company has "the alternative available to it of increasing power utilization" in a "commercially unproductive" manner, by burning through $70,000 worth of power over a three day period in order to save $140,000 on a fine it would have otherwise paid. Power use jumped from 28.5 million watts on December 16th to 34 million by December 19th.
The Utility board quickly voted 4 to 1 to waive all but $60,000 of the fine.
The data center has a history of energy-related issues. In 2007, three days after cutting the ribbon on the center, Microsoft made a complaint to the Utility that construction on a substation was slow. The substation would be able to provide 48 million watts of capacity, enough for 29,000 homes. Another controversy saw the center requesting to be taken off the energy grid during an expansion in 2010, with it relying on diesel-powered generators for 3,615 hours in the year 2010. In comparison, the Yahoo center used its back-up generators for only 65 hours in the same year.
Investigations by various legal bodies and state agencies into pollution caused by the data center have also taken place.