Sustainability in the spotlight as India’s data centre industry balloons

India is positioning itself as the next big market for data centres. Despite the insatiable appetite for data, hurdles remain for firms eyeing the market including the challenge of making data centres greener in a coal-dependent country.

Solar power in the state of Maharashtra in India
Solar power at work in the state of Maharashtra in India, told to expect “explosive growth”. Image: Thomas Lloyd Group, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

With close to 700 million people tapping on phones, India is the second largest market of internet users, after China, with mobile broadband usage exceeding anywhere else on the planet.

Increasing data consumption and internet bandwidth is driven by the uptake of smart devices, data localisation, favourable government policies and advancements in technology. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns accelerated the demand as government workers, businesses and students were confined to online platforms to maintain a semblance of normality. 

With usage expected to grow exponentially, India is fast becoming an emerging market for data centres in Asia Pacific and could soon be a strong competitor to more mature, albeit saturated, markets in the region such as Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a new report by Eco-Business Research

“The data supply chain is an important part of the economy in the 21st century. I would venture so far to say that it is as important and, in some cases, more important than the supply of oil,” said Sridhar Pinnapureddy, founder and chairman, CtrlS Datacenters, which supported the research. CtrlS saw their cloud business grow by 40 per cent in 2020 during the pandemic.

Investment in the global data centre market is expected to reach around US$200 billion per annum by 2025, and India is expected to account for 2.3 per cent of the total investments, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), a non-governmental trade association in India. 

The country has seen a flurry of investment with Google opening its second cloud region and Microsoft starting work on its fourth data centre. Despite luring global tech giants, greening this energy-hungry industry in India remains a challenge. 

Spotlight on sustainability

For prospective data centres players eying the Indian market, energy efficiencies will dominate the focus on improving the sustainability of this power guzzling industry.

Data centres consume high amounts of energy to power the systems that keep servers running round the clock with diesel-generators providing a back-up to prevent outage time that can cost thousands of dollars a minute and potentially damage a brand’s reputation.

India’s energy mix will be a key consideration for data centres given the growing pressure to drive down, or omit, greenhouse gas emissions from the value chain and decrease scope 3 emissions. Tenants are increasingly reluctant to shoulder the carbon footprint produced by data centres but are equally unwilling to pay more to cover the cost for more sustainable technologies, according to experts cited in the report. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set ambitious targets for renewable energy growth, including expanding capacity to 450 gigawatts (GW) in the next decade. India’s installed renewable energy capacity is about 150 GW, the government said on 2 December. Nuclear energy-based installed electricity is 6.78 GW. India is targeting 175 GW of renewable energy (solar, wind, biopower, small hydropower) capacity by 2022. 

The data supply chain is an important part of the economy in the 21st century. I would venture so far to say that it is as important and, in some cases, more important than the supply of oil.

Sridhar Pinnapureddy, founder and chairman, CtrlS Datacenters

Nevertheless, the country defended coal’s future at key climate talks in Glasgow. India and China are the only two nations in the past decade to add more coal-fired capacity despite the economic titans installing huge volumes of renewables to drive down greenhouse gas emissions. 

“A complete transition to renewables is unlikely in the near future, and data centre stakeholders should take this into account when planning to make an investment in India,” the reports notes. 

Distribution of renewable energy remains a bottleneck and onsite generation is not entirely feasible. One of the market obstacles for renewable energy in India is an insufficient integration of the grid, which affects renewable projects.

Data centres also generate a lot of heat and require intensive cooling and water to keep equipment running. Firms will also have to consider waste scarcity risks in states including Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where data centres are located.

Alluring market

Aside from an increasingly digital-savvy population, there are several factors that will likely propel data-centre growth in India, according to the report. The availability of land - something that is in short supply in hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong - add to the market’s attractiveness. In addition, lower power tariffs, a skilled workforce and growing sources of renewable energy are factors India can build upon.

Government policies supporting data centres will underpin the industry’s growth, several experts said. A draft of the national Data Centre Policy, spearheaded by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) is the first policy aimed specifically at data centres in India by incentivising and facilitating the establishment of state-of-the-art data centres. 

With the policy expected to be finalised soon, the industry is hoping for it to facilitate a pathway for data centres that can balance sustainability with business viability.

“The proposed data centre policy by MEITY, aimed at simplifying existing rules, and giving it ‘infrastructure’ status could see big ticket investments in this space,” Pinnapureddy said in the report.

The Digital India government initiative has also facilitated the upward trend for data usage, indicated experts in the report titled India’s data centre boom: powering sustainable growth

Meanwhile, state-level incentives for data centres are key in attracting investments to some among the 28 states of India. The states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Orissa are among those that already have dedicated data centre policies.

In the past month, two states – Tamil Nadu and Tripura – have announced state-level, data centre policies. According to media reports, Tamil Nadu has been attracting more firms after Singapore, a more established market, put a freeze on data centre growth due to energy and land constaints. 

Paving the way to progress

There are currently no set of norms or guidelines to enforce a level of sustainability in data centres in India. Nevertheless, industry experts agree that a pressure from hyperscalers to slash carbon emissions from supply chains will force a pivot to more sustainable technology. 

Improving efficiencies with advancements in technology and industry-specific transitions to renewable energy are some of the areas that the Indian government and industry are looking at in the near future to balance sustainability with business viability.

“We see a real opportunity for renewable energy in India going forward, we obviously would like to be able to scale our renewable purchases. If we can clear that hurdle in building new renewables projects to replace some of the carbon intensive energy that’s available today, then, the combination of land and availability of clean energy would certainly make India very attractive,” said a representative from a hyperscaler in the report.  

Industry leaders also called on the Indian government to conduct studies to ensure that they do not disturb socio-economic activity or add pressure in areas with resource scarcity, the report said. 

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