Data centres are the backbone of the digital age, powering everything, fr­om social media and e-commerce to cloud computing and mobile communications. Unfortunately, however, traditional data centres consume an enormous amou­nt of power and are major contributors to carbon emissions and environmental de­gra­dation.

These facilities run round the clock to operate the servers and maintain optimal temperatures. As the amount of data generated and stored continues to grow exponentially, so does the need for energy to power the IT infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Now, with the increasing focus on carbon reduction, there is a move towards green data centres, which seek to minimise the environmental impact of these facilities while still providing the essential services that power the digital economy. Green data centres are designed for maximum efficiency and minimum environmental impact by recycling and reusing water, substituting co­nventional power with renewable energy sources, managing e-waste in an environmentally safe manner, etc. By adopting sustainable practices, green data centres are helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint and operational expenditure.

Changing perception around green data centres

Green technology made its way into data centres globally more than a decade ago, at a time when solar module costs were high, making it a tough sell. Green technology in da­ta centres has come a long way since th­en. Solar panels were once seen as a costly investment, but as the demand for green energy has grown, so have the affordability and feasibility of renewable energy solutions. Data centre operators and owners are now more willing to invest in renewab­le energy as they aim to improve their efficiency and reduce their carbon emissions. Like other corporates, data centre companies too are becoming responsible and alig­ning themselves with the Sustainable De­ve­lopment Goals to address the challenges posed by climate change.

In addition to the environmental benefits, green energy solutions can offer cost savings and help in building brand reputation. As the demand for data centres conti­nues to grow, companies that prioritise sustainability and invest in green energy solutions will have a competitive advantage in the market.

In order to ensure that the increasingly digital world is a sustainable one, data centre operators must recognise that changes need to be made and that new energy business models will be key to how data centres view and manage their power needs, notes a recent research report by S&P Global Ma­rket Intelligence, “The Intersection of Digital Transformation and the Energy Transition”. In this report, 50 per cent of data centre operators cited the need to in­crease renewable energy consumption.

There is an industry movement led by hyperscale operators that has set goals to become carbon neutral or carbon negative by the end of this decade. These operators are taking the lead in advancing technologies that support these goals and developing a roadmap for the rest of the industry. Many colocation providers are also moving to carbon-neutral and water-efficient operations to capitalise on market demand for data centre services that support their en­ter­prise customers’ environmental goals.

Initiatives for sustainable data centre operations

Sustainable and green data centres are gaining traction to reduce carbon emissions and lower the operational expenditure. Many companies in India are investing in green energy solutions to power their data centres. In September 2022, Bharti Airtel announced that its subsidiary Nxtra Data Limited had partnered with Bloom Energy to deploy low environmental impact fuel cells at its data centre in Karnataka, unlocking both cost and sustainability benefits. Nxtra currently operates 10 large and 120 edge data centres across India. This is just one of several initiatives taken by Nxtra to reduce carbon emissions from its data centres. In 2021, the company commissioned a 14 MWp ca­ptive solar power plant to meet the energy requirements of its core and edge data centres in Uttar Pradesh.

Meanwhile, Airtel has signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) for sourcing electricity from a 9 MW hydropower plant for its data centres in Delhi, and has partnered with Avaada Energy to source solar power from 65 MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) assets. The company has also explor­ed the option of redeeming I-REC certificates against the electricity consumption at its data centre facilities to reinforce its renewable energy sourcing programme. Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited plans to build a solar-powered data centre in Uttar Pradesh at an investment of around $950 million. Adani Enterprises Limited has also partnered with EdgeConneX to deve­lop 1 GW of data centre capacity that will be powered by renewable energy.

Sify Technologies Limited recently concluded PPAs with Vibrant Energy Holdings for 231 MW of solar and wind energy capacity to power its latest hyperscale data centres. Hyderabad-based CtrlS has installed a building-integrated solar plant at its Mumbai data centre, generating 1.8 MUs of power per year and offsetting 620 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. The company plans to implement captive solar power plants with a total capacity of 200 MW.

Global data centre player NTT is rapidly expanding its renewable energy capacity to meet the power needs of its growing data centre operations. Its first 50 MW captive solar power plant was set up in Solapur, Maharashtra, in collaboration with Tata Power Renewable Energy Com­pa­ny. It caters to the energy needs of its Mumbai data centres. The company is re­por­tedly implementing another 50 MW solar project as well as a hybrid renewable energy project to meet its energy needs. The company also reportedly sources renewable en­ergy through the open access route to meet its power needs in a few cities.

Green hydrogen for data centres

While green data centres globally have so far used solar and wind power to meet their energy requirement, green hydrogen is gaining interest as a reliable renewable energy option. For instance, Microsoft, in association with Plug, a pioneer in building end-to-end green hydrogen ecosystems, recently tested a hydrogen fuel cell system to replace a traditional diesel-powered backup generator at a large data centre. After successfully completing prototype testing, Plug is now focused on ro­lling out an optimised commercial version of high-power stationary fuel cell systems that Microsoft reportedly plans to install in one of its research data centres.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer superior efficiency and dependability in comparison to on-grid solutions. They also produce minimal to zero carbon emissions, require mi­n­i­mal maintenance, and are modular in design.

In Union Budget 2023-24, the Indian government  has approved a $2.11 billion in­centive plan to boost local production and encourage the use of green hydrogen. The country aims for an annual production of 5 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030. Nxtra will be the first company in India to deploy fuel cell technology, which converts chemical energy from hydrogen and other fuels to electricity through an electrochemical reaction and not combustion, at its data centre in Karnataka.

Roadblocks in the way

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2050, renewable energy can and should account for 90 per cent of the world’s electricity. However, the challenge with renewable energy is its in­termittent nature, which creates flexibility issues for data centres. The variability of wind and solar sources may not match a data centre’s demand profile. Currently, the electricity grid is unprepared to handle such a significant amount of renewable energy and is at risk of failure.

Further, according to the International Energy Agency, matching 100 per cent of annual demand with renewable energy purchases or certificates does not mean that data centres are actually powered exclusively by renewable sources. Renewable energy certificates, in particular, are unlikely to lead to additional renewable energy prod­uction, resulting in inflated estimates of real-world emissions mitigation.

Future of sustainable data centres

Energy is the price to be paid for digitalisation, and the energy required to ac­hieve the level of digitalisation India aspi­res for is only going to rise in the coming years. JLL estimates that India’s data centre ca­pacity will double from 499 MW IT load as of September 2021 to 1,007 MW IT load by 2023, resulting in increased power demand. Emerging services and technologies such as streaming, cloud ga­ming, blockchain, machine learning and virtual reality are also driving the demand for data services.

Therefore, as a step towards a sustainable future, data centres must adopt grid-interactive alternatives to diesel gensets, invest in flexible storage systems and hy­drogen fuel cells, and upgrade their software and hardware.

Sugandha Khurana