Electricity is really just organized lightning.
~ George Carlin
QUINCY, Wash. - Set in the dry hills and irrigated farmland of Central Washington, Grant County is known for its robust harvest of apples, potatoes, cherries and beans. But for Microsoft, a prime lure was the region's other valuable resource: cheap electrical power.
The technology giant created a stir here in 2006 when it bought about 75 acres of bean fields to build a giant data center, a digital warehouse to support various Internet services. Its voracious appetite for electricity would be fed by hydroelectric generators that work off the flow of the nearby Columbia River, and Microsoft officials pledged to operate their new enterprise with a focus on energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity.
But for some in Quincy, the gee-whiz factor of such a prominent high-tech neighbor wore off quickly. First, a citizens group initiated a legal challenge over pollution from some of nearly 40 giant diesel generators that Microsoft's facility - near an elementary school - is allowed to use for backup power.
Then came a showdown late last year between the utility and Microsoft, whose hardball tactics shocked some local officials.
In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for overestimating 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.
"For a company of that size and that nature, and with all the 'green' things they advertised to me, that was an insult," said Randall Allred, a utility commissioner and local farmer.
A Microsoft spokeswoman said the episode was "a one-time event that was quickly resolved."
Internet-based industries have honed a reputation for sleek, clean convenience based on the magic they deliver to screens everywhere. At the heart of every Internet enterprise are data centers, which have become more sprawling and ubiquitous as the amount of stored information explodes, sprouting in community after community.
Apple today said it had sold more than 5 million iPhone 5 smartphones during the opening three-day weekend of sales, a 25% increase over last year's launch of the iPhone 4S. But there may be problems with production.
Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology, a major supplier for Apple, has halted production at a plant in northern China after a fight broke out among workers. Foxconn confirmed that a "personal dispute" escalated into an incident involving about 2,000 workers, injuring 40 of them.
Police later dealt with the situation near the facility in Taiyuan, which employs about 79,000 workers. Foxconn has previously been accused of having poor conditions for its workers.
Earlier in the year a fight broke out in a restaurant at a Foxconn plant involving about 100 workers. State media reported that the incident in Chengdu "was triggered by a conflict" between a group of workers and a restaurant owner.
A string of suicides at Foxconn last year put the spotlight on working conditions at its factories. The company has since agreed to reduce hours, protect pay and improve staff representation.
Corporations will issue a deluge of special dividends during the next three months because of the threat of higher tax rates next year, making 2012 a record period for the one-time payouts, according to Goldman Sachs and investors.
"A well capitalized corporate America, flush with cash, and a potential shift, regardless of party, in the tax rate higher in 2013 augur a wave of special dividend announcements," said Robert Boroujerdi of Goldman Sachs, in a note to clients Friday. "Combining the year-to-date special dividend announcements with the traditional 4Q trend, we expect 2012 to set a record."
"Dividend and buybacks - that's why stocks are so much more compelling vs. bonds," said Stephanie Link, director of research for TheStreet.com. Link and many other investors agree with Goldman's premise that much more is coming before the year is out because of the fiscal cliff.
And history shows the firm could be right. In 2010, when the Bush tax cuts were first set to expire at year-end, corporations ended up paying double the number of special dividends that were issued in 2009.