Pritesh Swamy, Senior Director-Data Centre Research & Advisory, APAC & EMEA, Cushman & Wakefield
One of the biggest industry challenges today is the storage, access and processing of the ever-increasing volumes of data. Technology has kept pace to address our needs and wants; however, technology is also contributing towards extensive carbon emissions.
As per a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), every hour of over-the-top (OTT) streaming produces 36 gm of carbon emissions. As per the Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators report released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, India has 850.95 million internet subscribers. If 50 per cent of these subscribers watch one hour of OTT daily, it can potentially result in 5.6 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually. This is equivalent to a container ship travelling at 20 and 25 knots per hour for 8,717 days, that is, approximately 24 years.
Data centres are designed to handle high volumes of data storage and processing with minimal downtime and this causes data centres to consume power extensively. One of the largest data centres is in Hohhot, China. The facility is spread over 10 million square feet and consumes 150 MW of power. It is estimated that data centres consume 1-3 per cent of the world’s total power and account for up to 3.7 per cent of the global carbon emissions, which is greater than the global airline industry at pre-pandemic. The total data centre capacity in terms of power (MW) is expected to double in the next five to seven years, which is bound to increase the power consumption in a similar proportion.
Therefore, the urgency for data centres to become carbon neutral is greater than ever. Operators are working tirelessly on this complex challenge, that is, to construct new data centres that can cater to the ever-growing consumption whilst ensuring low/carbon-neutral emissions.
Most of the large data centre operators, including colocation operators as well as cloud service providers (CSPs) have committed to net-zero carbon emissions. The largest CSPs such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google are the top companies to sign renewable power purchase agreements. While such initiatives from data centre operators are vital, the central government also needs to support operators by providing incentives and access to renewable power to achieve their own net-zero commitments.
In terms of renewable power generation, India is far ahead of countries such as the US and is the world’s third largest producer of renewable energy. Since 2020, the share of renewable power in India has increased from 36 per cent to 41 per cent and is on track to achieve its target to generate 50 per cent of power via renewable sources by 2030.
Data centre operators are working tirelessly to reduce their carbon emissions and with technological enhancements, the power usage effectiveness (PUE) has improved from 2.5 in early 2000s to around 1.5 in recent years. Countries such as Singapore have set the benchmark of 1.3 PUE for the construction of new data centres. While improving PUE and sourcing renewable power is essential, it cannot attain net-zero carbon emissions in isolation. Optimisation of water usage effectiveness (WUE) and the overall carbon usage effectiveness (CUE) also need to be measured and improved. This trinity of measurement should be the new standard for green data centres.
Google reported the consumption of approximately 4.3 billion gallons (16.3 billion litres) of water by its data centres in 2021. While Google has committed to replenish 120 per cent of the water they consume, commitment from all data centre operators towards reduction in WUE would also be needed.
The commitments toward net-zero carbon emissions from most operators in India are encouraging; however, there are still many challenges on the path ahead. Similar to the data centre operators, the end-customers of data centres may also have net-zero commitments. These customers may demand requirements in terms of mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment, sourcing of raw materials, etc., on the basis of their net-zero commitments. Such requirements can directly impact capex and operating costs for operators.
India has about 1.5 GW of new supply in the pipeline and the landbank with operators can potentially add another 3 GW of supply. While the country is focused on increasing renewable energy generation, capacity addition may not keep pace with data centre deployments, thereby delaying the achievement of net-zero targets.
Peter Drucker, an author and management consultant, said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Data centre operators will have to not only ensure that their data centres are green, sustainable and carbon neutral but also monitor their entire supply chain in order to truly achieve net-zero carbon emissions.