According to the New York Times:
In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for [over]estimating its power use, Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show. Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an “unnecessarily wasteful” way until the fine was substantially cut, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
To which my initial reaction was, “hell, yes. Go Microsoft! You kick ass!”, and my more considered reaction is, yes, that is perfectly rational. Microsoft used “giant heaters” to burn $70,000 worth of electricity in three days and avoid the penalty; an impressive feat.
[Edit for clarity]: The utility “requires large industrial customers to file load forecasts each fall for the next calendar year and face a penalty if they are off by a significant margin in either direction”. Microsoft used less electricity than it forecast and realised it could just burn some up to avoid paying the penalty.
The obvious question is, why would the penalty for overestimating use be more than the cost of the estimated use? It is a question that commenters at the Verge, where I first read this story, are speculating about. My favourite comment here is a response to complaints that all the comments are excusing Microsoft: “I don’t think it’s MS apologists in this instance. They seem more like libertarians and climatology deniers.”
It could simply be that the fees really are in line with the utility’s costs, but in that case Microsoft’s actions would be nothing for anyone to complain about. It seems more likely that some sort of market distortion is going on. The “utility” in question is Grant County Public Utility District, tagline “Community Owned and Operated”. Perhaps there are some clues there.
The Verge also reports on a New York Times crusade against the energy cost of the Internet. Sigh.