The Hidden Environmental Costs of India’s Data Centre Push – The Wire Science

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  • Data centres are giant industrial collections of servers that store and process data underlying the modern information economy.
  • Most policies concerning the installation, use and maintenance of data centres ignore an important aspect: their environmental impact.
  • They are online 24/7 and require power back-up and a captive power source as well as a substantial volume of water to stay cool.
  • They often have a deleterious impact on nearby watersheds along with emissions issues arising from the disposal of cooling water and waste heat.

Data centres are a crucial element of modern information and communication technology industries. They are giant industrial collections of servers that store and process data underlying the modern information economy. The control of data centres offers economic benefits as well as the ability to achieve data sovereignty.

The Indian data centre market is estimated to grow to $5 billion. In addition, India’s natural resources, connectivity to global markets and strategic location at the junction of multiple submarine cables offers private players good incentives to invest in data centres.

Recognising this, the Government of India released a draft ‘National Data Centre Policy‘ in 2020. Several major states have also notified their respective data centre policies and others have signed MoUs with private players to develop data centres. This is how the installed data centre capacity of India is expected to double from 499 MW in 2021 to 1,008 MW by 2023.

These policies, however, ignore a very pertinent issue with data centres: their environmental impact.

Data centres affect the environment in two major ways: electricity consumption and water usage. They are online 24/7 and require power back-up and a captive power source, as well as a substantial volume of water to stay cool. They often have a deleterious impact on nearby watersheds along with emissions issues arising from the disposal of cooling water and waste heat.

Electricity

Most countries don’t require reporting of data centre-specific energy or environmental impact studies. However, there are models to estimate  energy use. The most authoritative study of electricity use was conducted in 2011: it estimated that the industry accounted for 1.1-1.5% of total electricity use worldwide.

The figures for India are not available.

Further, there is also the issue of the source of electricity. At present, 59.1% of India’s electricity comes from fossil fuels, with 51% of that from coal.

In states with the largest number of data centre projects, namely Maharashtra and Delhi NCR, some 78% and 85-90% of the total electricity generated is from fossil fuel sources, and mostly coal. Maharashtra alone hosts more than 40% of India’s installed data centres. Further, Maharashtra has projects which will double its installed capacity by 2023. It seems unlikely that this expansion can be achieved without serious reliance on coal and fossil fuel-powered electricity.

While the draft National Data Centre Policy 2020 encourages the use of “solar or wind” energy for data centres, it does not mandate the use of green energy or for a minimum threshold for use of green energy. So any measures to reduce the carbon footprint of data centres is at the initiative of private companies alone.

Water

A grave issue that policies don’t address in any form is the use of water by data centres. They use water in two ways: directly and indirectly. Direct consumption is usually for cooling purposes, often including potable water (in the US). Indirectly, they consume water through the requirements of non-renewable electricity generation and also via “the water embedded with the electricity consumption of water and wastewater utilities servicing the data centre” (source).

The data of data centres’ use of water is quite sparse. Google and Microsoft do not specify how much water their centres consume, although their aggregate water consumption is known. Amazon provides almost no data about its water consumption, including of its data centres. There is no law requiring the disclosure of water consumption by data centres, in the US or in India.

Instead, examples of profligate water use only come to light due to disputes with local residents. For example, a major Google data centre in South Carolina, a water-deficit region, used up to 2.4 billion litres of water every year.

In the US, a recent paper estimated the direct water consumption of data centres in the US at 130 billion litres annually with a total consumption, direct and indirect, of 513 billion litres of water. The water scarcity footprint, a metric used to evaluate the total impact of consumption on all other users of the watershed of data centres, is almost 10-times more at 1.29 trillion litres. To compare, the Ministry of Water Resources in India has estimated that a total of 17 trillion litres of water was used in all the industrial areas in India. Data centres in the US use nearly a tenth of the water used by all industrial units in India.

India, with 17% of the world’s population, has just 4% of the world’s freshwater. The country has been facing water scarcity in nearly 21 major cities; the data hubs of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Chennai are all likely to face major water crises, as per one NITI Aayog report. However, these lessons from the US have not been considered by the Indian Government. Neither the draft National Data Centre Policy nor any of the extant state policies address the issue of water requirements of data centres.

The absence of knowledge about the true cost of data centres in terms of water consumption means states continue to incentivise greater  investments without asking for any data about water consumption – or the impact of such use on the water table and local residents. No laws mandate the use of sustainable water and conservation practices either.

What next?

All these problems are not insurmountable. In fact, as the recent paper noted, much of the water footprint of American data centres could be reduced by situating the data centres in places where the watershed is not seriously stressed, by moving away from using potable groundwater, and using rainwater harvesting and other sources.

As India’s own experience has shown, it is possible to reverse water scarcity and foster sustainable water use practices at scale with political will. For electricity, it’s important to actualise the shift to renewable energy. These issues can be addressed with stringent reporting norms, independent audits and proper planning.

In the information economy of the 21st century, data centres present an incredible economic and strategic opportunity. However, it is important that we take the true costs of data centres into account and ensure that India’s dreams of data sovereignty do not come at the cost of its people and its environment.

Gunjan Jena is a lawyer and public policy researcher from Bengaluru.

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