Will hyperscale cloud drastically affect NZ’s environment? That’s the plan

 |   Russell Craig, National Technology Officer, Microsoft NZ

If you’ve worked at Microsoft New Zealand over the past two years, one question that regularly comes up in conversations with partners and customers and even, quite often, with friends and family is:

“So, what’s the new datacenter region going to mean for New Zealand?”

When we first made the announcement in 2020, interest seemed to focus on the halo effects of the “cloud dividend” and its impact on jobs, productivity and innovation, along with the ins and outs of latency, data residency and cloud security. At a time when organisations were rushing to implement remote working, switch to online services and simply stay up and running, it made sense to concentrate on how the new region would support Aotearoa’s long-term economic sustainability.

But as the pandemic has fallen lower down the news agenda, the focus has shifted towards a different kind of sustainability:

“What impact will the region have on our electricity system, and the environment?”

In our recent announcement about Microsoft’s partnership with Ecotricity, we made it clear that our ambition is to have a significant impact on New Zealand’s zero carbon power usage – one for the better. But it relies on all of us to make the most of it.

The hyperscale cloud revolution is already helping reduce our use of natural resources as businesses migrate their operations to the cloud. We’re seeing businesses reduce their carbon emissions through moving to the cloud – often without realising it. Now, with the availability of tools like Microsoft’s Cloud for Sustainability, they are enabled to achieve sustainability gains within their organisation, and across their supply chains, and make through using cloud to measure and manage their environmental footprint, starting with their carbon emissions.

Looking ahead, we’re excited about potential of the coming boom in hyperscale datacenters to incentivise further investment in zero carbon power generation. Simply put, the more demand there is for cloud technologies that use zero carbon energy, the more incentive there is for generators to invest in hydro, geothermal, wind and solar. That will help transition our whole economy towards net zero carbon, benefiting not only the people who use our datacenter region directly, but every New Zealander.

But we know Microsoft’s datacenter region can’t achieve this on its own. Leadership, conscious cloud consumption and collaboration across organisations and sectors are vital to making the most of what sustainable cloud offers.

At the recent CFO Summit, I discussed the key findings of Microsoft’s Accelerating the Journey to Net Zero report, which showed that many organisations are struggling to turn good intentions into action on carbon reduction. To address this, one of the key recommendations the researchers made was for large businesses to lead by investing in R&D and new technologies to create economies of scale for the rest of us, and for more businesses and public sector organisations to partner on sustainable solutions.

In partnering with Ecotricity, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Aotearoa, with our already high use of renewable energy resources and our national commitment to net zero by 2050, has a real opportunity to create a tech ecosystem that supports a sustainable future. And if we see more organisations join together and make similar investments in zero carbon technologies, including sustainable cloud, we’ll give our country a massive edge in the global market as well. Investors and consumers around the world are demanding environmentally-conscious products and services. By building further on New Zealand’s existing renewable energy infrastructure, we’d be in a truly unbeatable position to provide this.

The real question is: “What are we waiting for?”

The advent of limitless cloud opens up immense new opportunities to collaborate on initiatives that benefit our planet and people. Microsoft’s cloud agreement with Auckland Transport includes investing in upskilling its workforce, to enable more innovation in cloud technologies that massively improve transport services in real time. And by doing that, we incentivise uptake of public transport, encouraging a greater shift towards a more sustainable future. It’s also fantastic to see how cloud is being democratised to protect our native species, such as the Māui dolphin, enabling citizen scientists to track and record endangered marine animals to help with conservation efforts.

And through projects like the Wellington visual demonstrator, a collaboration between the Ministry for the Environment, Microsoft, mana whenua, government agencies and the global Open Data Institute, we’re increasing our shared understanding of climate change and the impacts of our activities on the environment. That means governments, councils and everyday people can make more informed decisions about how we both use and protect the environment in the future.

Imagine one day having access to a nationwide database showing the impacts of sea level rises on your street, what the likely effects of a building consent would be on soil quality or erosion, and how biodiversity in your local area has changed over time. Sharing and analysing data on this kind of scale simply wouldn’t be possible without hyperscale cloud. With the recent flooding across the motu, using the power of the cloud for these kinds of collaborations is more important than ever.

In the future, I’m excited to see local organisations explore opportunities like Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, to innovate with carbon abatement technologies, sustainable agriculture and a circular economy here in Aotearoa.

So when I’m asked about the impact of hyperscale cloud on Aotearoa’s environment, I say:

“Massive – if we all approach it right.”

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