Microsoft’s new campus will run on geothermal energy – but what exactly is it and can it really help combat climate change?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Microsoft is using the Earth’s geothermal energy to power its new sustainable campus in the US.
  • This will reduce Microsoft’s energy use by more than 50%, the company says.
  • Geothermal energy is natural heat stored below the surface that can be used for heating or cooling.
  • This type of electricity generation could meet 25% of Europe’s energy needs by 2030.
  • But geothermal energy generation needs to increase from 3% to 10% a year to meet sustainability goals.

Microsoft is using geothermal energy from deep underground to power its new sustainable campus in the United States.

The computing giant is building 93,000 square metres of new workspace on 29 hectares of its Redmond campus, east of Seattle in Washington state, as part of its pledge to be carbon negative by 2030.

“Our new Thermal Energy Center will generate heating and cooling for the campus using geowells that access and use the deep earth’s constant temperature,” Microsoft explains on its Building a modern campus page.

What is geothermal energy?

Geothermal energy is natural heat stored below the Earth’s surface that can be used for heating or cooling. It’s accessed via wells, dug deep underground.

Microsoft’s geothermal system will involve 875 geothermal wells drilled 167 metres into the ground across a 1 hectare field.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The wells will comprise one of the biggest geothermal fields of its kind in the US to harness the Earth’s thermal energy, Microsoft says.

Water will be distributed across the campus in 354 kilometres of pipes to provide heating and cooling to the new sustainable office buildings, the first one of which is due to open in 2023.

Microsoft’s Thermal Energy Centre will be at the heart of this geothermal system. It will house “enormous chillers, cooling towers, back-up generators, solar panels” as well as 20 metre tanks that can store 1,270 cubic metres of water as thermal energy, according to Microsoft writer Vanessa Ho.

Microsoft says tapping into geothermal energy will reduce its energy consumption by more than 50%, compared to a typical utility plant.

Natural energy source

Geothermal energy is a rich source of renewable energy globally.

Iceland, for example, is a pioneer of geothermal energy and has an “abundant source of hot, easily accessible underground water,” says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This is provided by more than 200 volcanoes and many hot springs, which bring geothermal energy to the Earth’s surface through water or steam.

Iceland is helping Africa develop its geothermal resources through a UNEP project, the African Rift Geothermal Development Facility Project (ARGeo). East Africa could generate an estimated 20 gigawatts of electricity from geothermal energy, UNEP says.

Interest is growing in geothermal energy as an important alternative to wind and solar – which cannot generate enough electricity all the time to meet demand.

Meeting energy needs

The European Geothermal Energy Council (EGEC) describes geothermal energy as an “endless source of renewable energy, which can be used for heating, cooling, electricity and energy storage for countless uses in buildings, industry and agriculture”.

It could meet about 25% of Europe’s energy needs by 2030, EGEC says, and is one of the cheapest renewables in the long-term.

“After an initial installation investment, the operating costs are very low and predictable,” it adds.

microsoft geothermal energy sustainable campus natural heat temperature office solar panel wind renewable climate change technology
Geothermal electricity generation will need to grow from 3% to 10% a year to meet sustainable development goals. Image: IEA

But the world is currently not on track. Geothermal electricity generation rose by an estimated 3% in 2019, below the average growth of the five previous years, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

To meet the world’s global goals on sustainable development, it would need to increase 10% a year between 2019 and 2030, the IEA says.

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