It’s rush hour in Wallingford, and commuters are stepping off a bus, closing up their laptops and heading into the evening sun. It’s not public transit. It’s a Microsoft Connector bus.
The buses eliminate nearly 12 million miles of driving a year, saving stress and exhaust. The fleet of white and green buses is one of Microsoft’s more visible efforts to lower its impact on the global climate.
The tech giant consumes as much energy as a small state, said Rob Bernard, who is in charge of environmental strategy at the company. “It's not impossible to see in the future that we would consume potentially as much as a small nation,” he said.
Most of the energy is used at the company's rapidly growing data centers, Bernard said. Microsoft wants to take responsibility for that global impact even if the U.S. government no longer does.
Other Washington state companies, too, are thinking this way. The movement picked up steam when President Donald Trump announced he would pull America out of the Paris climate agreement, with Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks all pledging their support for ambitious, if unspecified, climate action to meet the terms of the agreement.
Microsoft had lobbied Trump to stay in the Paris agreement. It also pushed the White House, unsuccessfully, to keep President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The company’s efforts on behalf of the climate predate the Trump administration. Since 2012, the tech giant has slapped a carbon tax on itself to push everything it does in a climate-friendly direction. This April, it negotiated a divorce from Puget Sound Energy so its suburban-Seattle office campuses can run on power that isn’t made from coal.
That deal would allow Microsoft, currently Puget Sound Energy’s largest customer, to buy power directly from clean-energy providers. It awaits approval by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
Clean energy soon enough?
Many tech companies, including Microsoft, have pledged to get all their energy from clean sources — someday. That unspecified point in the future may be too late for a livable climate; scientists say the world needs deep cuts in fossil fuel starting now.
Microsoft data centers in eastern Washington run mostly on carbon-neutral hydropower, but still get some power from coal, according to the Grant County Public Utility District. They also ran their backup diesel generators for nearly a month last year, according to state regulators — enough to add 2 tons of diesel soot to the air above rural Quincy, Washington.
In the short term, Microsoft aims to get half its power worldwide from wind, solar and hydropower by the end of next year. While that goal is only half as ambitious as Google’s all-renewables-this-year plan, it is more ambitious than many states or nations.
Bernard said lowering Microsoft’s dependence on dirty energy has been good for business.
PACCAR, the fifth largest company in Washington state, said the same, though it has been much less politically active on the issue than Microsoft, and it has not fully disclosed its emissions.
The big-truck manufacturer has taken no position on Trump’s withdrawal from the global climate agreement.
Quiet company, loud products
The low-profile company has been around for more than a century, and employees at PACCAR Tower in Bellevue still wear suits to work. “It is very traditional,” said Ken Hastings, who handles investor and media relations at PACCAR. “We do dress in business attire.”
Eighteen-wheelers tend to get about 6 miles a gallon, meaning they burn a lot of diesel and put out a lot of carbon dioxide.
“We continually make improvements in fuel efficiency,” Hastings said. “We're highly motivated to do that regardless of the regulatory environment.”
Manufacturers got an extra push last year to do more of that when the Obama administration raised efficiency requirements for heavy trucks.
Yet Hastings said it’s customers who push PACCAR to make greener trucks. For trucking companies, diesel is such a big share of costs that the firms are, um, driven to save energy.
“Whether diesel is at $2.50 or whether it's at $4, our customers are very motivated to reduce fuel costs,” he said. “Fuel costs are probably one third of their total operating cost.”
There are indications the Trump administration may try to undo Obama administration fuel economy rules for heavy trucks, as it is doing for cars. Hastings said a push for less regulation won’t affect what PACCAR does, one way or the other.
“If the government's needs change, we would still continue to develop more fuel efficient vehicles because that's what customers want,” he said.
Hastings said it’s not in the company’s DNA to be activist.
“It's part of our culture,” Hastings said. “We would rather win in the market than try to influence events through lobbying efforts.”
Congressional disclosures show that PACCAR does lobby in D.C., but much less than many corporate giants from our region. Microsoft, for example, spent 32 times more than PACCAR on federal lobbying last year.
“They’ve historically been more quiet when it comes to policy options,” Dave Cooke with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which lobbies for cleaner transportation, said of PACCAR.
The company’s politics as well as attire favor the conservative: It steers campaign contributions almost exclusively to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Donations from Microsoft staff and political committees lean Democratic.)
The trucking industry and the environment have both benefited from federal subsidies for research into energy-saving “super trucks.”
PACCAR participated in the first round of the Obama administration’s Supertruck program, aimed at developing trucks with double the fuel efficiency of today’s rigs.
Hastings said some of the innovations from the first Supertruck program, like aerodynamic wheel covers and lightweight materials, are already being used in PACCAR trucks today.
The Trump Administration’s federal budget for 2018 would slash funding for round two of the Supertruck program.
After Trump started dismantling U.S. efforts to protect the climate, many climate advocates and scientists expressed despair for the future. But not Microsoft's Rob Bernard.
“I have never been more optimistic about where the future will go,” he said.
He said all the cloud computing at Microsoft data centers can reduce energy use elsewhere tenfold by making buildings and industries smarter.
Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Setting up our radio interview, Microsoft staffer Michelle Lancaster and I struggled in vain to turn off a noisy computer fan.
“We used to be able to turn these off,” she said.
There in the epicenter of smart technology, we wound up walking to another part of the building, where machinery wasn’t running uselessly, making noise and wasting energy.
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