Can renewable energy meet the Energy Guzzling needs of Data Centres

As the world’s leading super powers meet at Glasgow Climate Change Conference, there is an increasing debate on how the widespread use of technology impacts power requirements across countries- both developed and developing.

India, on its part has committed to significant use of clean fuel (it has committed to achieve 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030). With over a billion mobile phones and more than 700 million internet subscribers, India has also witnessed an exponential growth in digital-commerce, digital entertainment and use of social media. India’s mobile data consumption is already the highest in the world and is constantly increasing.

Power Needs of DCs

So, can the country’s power infrastructure cope with the surge in demand from Hyperscale Data Centres? Before answering this question, there is a need to understand the role of power in a Data Centre. A Hyperscale Data Centre is a massive business-critical facility designed to efficiently support robust, scalable applications. A Hyperscale Data Centre also consists of minimum 5000 – 10,000 servers which are energy guzzlers, opine industry watchers.

According to reports, the entire Data Centre industry uses over 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This is the equivalent output of roughly 34 coal-powered power plants. At a global scale, 3 per cent of all electricity used in the world goes to Data Centres. “That’s a huge chunk we are talking about in an industry which has only grown in the past decade or so,” states Ankit Saraiya, Director, Techno Electric and Engineering Company Ltd (TEECL).

India can cope with the gargantuan power requirements that Data Centres demand as it still uses a lot of coal or conventional fuel. “While there are other renewable and sustainable energy options primary source has been coal. India relies heavily on coal as primary source for its energy and power distribution,” points out Saraiya.

However, with an increasing push towards renewable energy, would the continued reliance on coal power cause problems later on? Industry watchers opine that certain steps need to be taken if India has to avoid the situation some of the other countries have ended up with.

New Framework Needed

“There is a dire need of a straightforward framework in India to regulate power and energy. The government needs to prioritise Data Centres as an industry. Companies that opt for Green Data Centres and source energy using renewable power supply should be encouraged and incentivised. Dependency on coal and thermal energy should be marginalised only to domestic use and in regions where renewable energy production would be difficult,” states Saraiya.

Efforts are on towards classifying Data Centre as an industry. Exactly a year back, in November 2020, the Indian government came out with a draft of a national Data Centre (DC) policy. The intent was to take a fresh look at the existing policy, while at the same time attracting additional capital to meet the burgeoning demands of India’s digital needs.

At the outset, the draft touched upon focuses on simplifying existing rules, promote indigenous manufacturing and grant Data Centres “infrastructure” status, which could see big ticket investments. Infrastructure status has been accorded to roadways, railways and electricity grids. Data Centres would also be designated as an essential service under the law, much like telecom networks. India’s Privacy Data Protection Law (PDPL) is yet to be passed into a law.

Currently, as per various estimates, India has around 375 MW installed power capacity for Data Centre and as per projections, this may grow to three time by 2025. While the Data Centre sector is witnessing growth, there are impediments such as lack of infrastructure or Industry status of the Data Centres, complex clearance processes, time consuming approvals, high cost of power, lack of published standards, absence of specialised building norms for building the Data Centres, submarine cable network connectivity limited to few states and high cost of capital and operational expenditure.

There is a need to get both the Data Centre policy as well as PDPL off the ground. Sooner this happens, the better it is for the industry, which in many ways is the backbone of India’s economy.

25th November 2021 || St. Regis Mumbai

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