The University of Texas at San Antonio took a big step forward into the world of advanced energy research Wednesday morning as it joined with tech giant Microsoft to announce the establishment of a “three-year agreement to research and develop sustainable technologies to make data centers more energy efficient and economically viable.”

Microsoft is lending more than its name and support to the project. A  company executive announced a $1 million gift to UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, established in 2010 to accelerate and expand energy, water and sustainability research projects at the university.

Microsoft has undertaken a $250 million expansion of its existing data center in San Antonio, built in 2008, a project that will expand the 427,000 square foot facility by adding a companion 256,000 square foot data center next door. Energy supply and costs are key factors of data center management, and UTSA’s new mission will be to find ways to gain greater efficiency while not sacrificing reliability, especially in times of peak load demand when the state grid comes under the greatest pressure.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo and Mayor Julián Castro present Microsoft Director of Energy Strategy Brian Janous with a photo of the Torch of Friendship during the UTSA-Microsoft collaborative announcement. Photo by Mark McClendon of UTSA.

City and Microsoft officials discussed various ways the Washington-based company could invest in San Antonio, and a team led by Mayor Julián Castro suggested a higher education collaborative, which in turn led to today’s announcement. Castro and Romo made two trips to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. to pursue the partnership.

“UTSA is becoming a leader in sustainable energy research and the new energy economy,” Castro said at the gathering. “This collaborative with Microsoft will be a big part of that cutting edge work.”

The mood on campus was festive with a breakout band of brass and percussion lending a pep rally feel to the announcement at the University Center, festooned with orange and blue balloons and packed with university and community leaders as well as students.

A large crowd gathers for the UTSA-Microsoft research collaboration announcement. Photo by Mark McClendon of UTSA.

The UTSA-Microsoft collaboration, coupled with other existing partnerships such as the UTSA-CPS Energy collaborative, underscores efforts to transform UTSA into a Tier One research university that attracts more substantial research grants and the leading faculty and students that inevitably follow.

“Research partnerships like this are a game changer for San Antonio and UTSA,” UTSA President Ricardo Romo said. “They enable UTSA to conduct innovative research in sustainable energy while positioning the city on the global business stage.”

Romo and Castro were joined at the announcement by Brian Janous, the youthful director of energy strategy at Microsoft.

Brian Janous, director of energy strategy at Microsoft, announces the UTSA-Microsoft research collaborative. Photo Mark McClendon of UTSA.

“Distributed generation represents a major shift in the energy sector that will dramatically change how data centers operate,” said Janous. “The leadership of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA and the city of San Antonio were instrumental in bringing this research to a community like San Antonio.”

Janous, who joked he was the only speaker in the room not sporting a UTSA tie, said the UTSA-Microsoft relationship announced today would develop into something well beyond a $1 million research grant or even the three-year collaborative.

“We are on the cusp of a major energy transition. It’s not if but when that transition occurs. It’s a trillion-dollar shift,” Janous said. “This isn’t some science project we are funding, but research that can be deployed in the new energy economy. Invention happens in the lab, but innovation happens in the marketplace.”

Microsoft established its existing data center here in 2008, but has kept a relatively low profile locally until now. For Romo and UTSA, the partnership offers unprecedented opportunity to elevate university research, and to attract national attention from other potential partners. For Mayor Castro and San Antonio, the Microsoft expansion and collaborative helps cement the city’s profile as host to a growing data center cluster. Affordable land and energy, sufficient water, relative weather predictability, and attractive incentives all work in the city’s favor.

“We will spend more money on energy over the lifetime of the data center than we will spend building the data center, so advances in energy efficiency and sustainability are essential,” Janous said. “Fossil fuels will be part of our energy portfolio for years to come so the question is, how do we make those fuels more efficient?”

For Les Shephard, director of UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, the partnership is a major advance connecting university researchers and students with one of the country’s most recognized and deeply resourced tech corporations.  Shephard, who came to UTSA from Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico in 2010, has been working with CPS Energy and other partners to elevate the institute to national status. Today’s announcement brings him much closer to that goal.

Mauli Agrawal, vice president for research at UTSA, announces the UTSA-Microsoft research collaborative. Photo Mark McClendon of UTSA.

“Our objective is to bring together technology, economics and commercialization to create a smart intelligent energy system,” said C. Mauli Agrawal, vice president for research at UTSA. “We want to identify economically viable technologies that will reduce the environmental footprint of data centers. For our students, this collaborative represents the opportunity to work on cutting-edge research projects.”

Janous said his team was meeting with Shephard and his team after agreeing to the three-year pact when he asked, “What’s our goal here?”

“To change the world,” a member of the Microsoft team answered.

“That’s great for this year. What about next year?” quipped Shephard.

“Everything announced today impacts our students in the best possible way,” Romo said as the band struck up a cheer song and the event concluded. “It’s a new day at UTSA.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.

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