This overwhelming reliance on natural resources, coupled with increased greenhouse gas emissions has led to data centres being identified as a potential risk to climate sustainability.
By KS Roshan Menon
Earlier this year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Budget speech, proposed the development of a policy to enable private sector players to build data centre parks in India. This is not the first time that India has sought to regulate the establishment of data centres. Previously, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeITY) sought to establish data centres at the state level to further the National eGovernance Plan and released comprehensive guidelines to regulate the same.
A key concern addressed inadequately by these guidelines is the ecological impact of data centres. In this article, I explain the adverse environmental impact of data centres and explore the need for the upcoming policy to institute mechanisms that monitor such impact.
A ‘data centre park’ is a facility housing multiple data centres that cater for the operational and organisational needs of data-driven companies. Data centres are physical warehouses responsible for the storing and dissemination of data for information services. They contain computers, network communications and storage systems, and power systems that keep the centres up and running. In essence, data centres house the IT capabilities required to run data businesses.
Requiring extensive infrastructure to power and cool these systems, data centres consume vast amounts of electricity—with Greenpeace noting that the industry’s electricity consumption in China may exceed Australia’s total electricity consumption for 2018 by 2023. Additionally, storing digital data is set to account for 14% of the world’s CO2 emissions by 2040, with emissions currently on par with the airline industry. Moreover, data centres often rely on water-powered cooling towers to achieve efficient power usage. This requirement for water is immense—data centres in the United States are expected to consume 660 billion gallons of water in 2020, according to a study commissioned by the US Department of Energy.
This overwhelming reliance on natural resources, coupled with increased greenhouse gas emissions has led to data centres being identified as a potential risk to climate sustainability. A mature response to this concern lies in reforming regulatory attitudes to assess the environmental impact of data centres.
Globally, governments and businesses have already undertaken reforms to assess the environmental impact of data centres. For example, the Australian government has broadened the scope of the National Australian Built Environment Ratings System (NABERS), a rating service to measure the environmental impact of buildings, to include data centres. Similar to the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s (BEE) ratings for appliances in India, NABERS rates data centres out of six stars, helping identify areas of infrastructural improvement and environmental performance.
Reform has also centred on studying methods to re-utilise waste heat generated by data centres. Illustratively, IBM has earmarked $2 million for Project Thrive—an initiative to develop materials that use waste heat to cool data centres. Condorcet has already implemented measures to this effect, directing waste heat generated by its data centre in Paris to a Climate Change Arboretum studying the effects of heat on vegetation.
In addition to these measures, businesses and governments have thrown their weight behind renewable energy (RE) to power data centres, thereby reducing emissions. Australia has advocated for power purchase agreements for offsite RE to power data centres, reducing environmental impact. Further, according to the science journal Nature, nearly 20 internet companies had committed to using 100% RE, with Facebook signing a 15-year agreement to receive all the energy generated from Norway’s largest wind farm.
As evidenced above, measuring environmental impact is an important strategy that the government must incorporate in the proposed policy for data centre parks. For this, the policy should commit to developing and implementing an energy efficiency standard for data centres in India. Standards and labelling for this may be carried out by the BEE itself, in order to minimise regulatory costs.
Demonstrably, a move to RE holds the potential for data centres to reduce emissions. A recommendation to this effect in the current policy, however, seems myopic—ultimately, all technologies can benefit from a move to RE. It is therefore advisable to hold out on recommending a RE strategy until the government enacts a coherent renewable energy policy.
Overall, the government’s focus should rest on preparing a holistic policy that ensures that the environmental impact of data centres does not go unnoticed. Once the policy installs mechanisms to monitor the environmental impact of data centres, it may subsequently look at measures to mitigate the same.
The author is Research Scholar at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co..
Views are personal
The author is grateful to Nawneet Vibhaw, Siddharth Nair and Pratik Datta for their insightful comments