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Infosys brings home the green

The IT-services giant has set daunting Energy-efficiency goals and is attacking them with rare vigour.
By Ashish Gupta

My first visit to fatehpur sikri 10 years ago was memorable. Not because of its red sandstone palaces and grand mosques dating back to the late 16th century, but for the bone-jarring ride on a camel cart from the car park up the slopes. It was all very environment friendly, and in tune with the surrounding antiquity, but I rather wished I was on one of the cute electric buses doing the rounds. A couple of months ago, when I walked into the futuristic headquarters of Infosys—a lush green business park sprawled across 81 acres in Bengaluru’s Electronics City—I finally got my wish, albeit on board an electric golf cart. The carts (and bicycles) are the only means of getting around the campus. Other vehicles are not allowed past the multilevel car park.

India’s third-biggest software services exporter is not a tree-hugger in the conventional sense. In order to drum up their green efforts, companies often fall for pet projects like “social forestry” and “conservation”. These are, no doubt, important, but Infosys, a Nasdaq-listed $9 billion (Rs 56,853 crore) bellwether with a reputation for innovation, decided early that going green cannot be about the low-hanging fruit. It would have to be, to borrow jargon, all about scale and impact.

So back in 2007, the company decided to walk away from the power-guzzling concrete-and-glass domes, and start building a lean-energy infrastructure. It meant spending crores and devoting years to set up energy-efficient campuses, intelligent building management systems (BMS), and clean energy plants like solar parks. For its troubles, a total of 13 buildings across Infy campuses, covering an area of over 4.3 million sq. ft., have received the Platinum certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a globally accepted benchmark for design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. It also became the first Indian firm to join RE100, a global platform for companies committed to 100% renewable energy. Among the heavyweights of the elite energy club are IKEA, Swiss Re, GE, SAP, BT, Formula E, H&M, KPN, Mars, Nestlé, and Philips.

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Inside the green campuses: (left) An energy-efficient chiller at infy’s pune campus; (Facing page) the Central Command Centre at the electronics city campus, Bengaluru, monitors data from 75-odd smart buildings. 

As part of the RE100 programme, Infy will be investing Rs 400 crore to turn carbon-neutral by 2018, and aims to fulfil its entire energy requirement from renewable sources. It is now working to reduce per-capita power and water consumption by 50% (compared to 2007-2008 levels), without compromising on the health, safety, and comfort of its 1,76,187 employees (as of March 2015). Other assorted schemes include an ambitious “zero waste to landfill” programme, distributing low-smoke ovens in rural areas, and greening: The company has planted 2,72,225 trees over the past five years and will be nurturing them for the next 10 to 15 years.

All this makes for an intimidating task. Achieving carbon neutrality across its 10 campuses (138 buildings and a total built-up area of 40.36 million sq. ft., plus employee travel) means offsetting 3.74 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Add to that its upcoming campus in China and proposed IT parks across the country (it has invested Rs 420 crore in FY15 to acquire 109.1 acres of land in Bengaluru, Delhi-NCR, Mysuru, Pune, and Mohali), and the magnitude hits home. 

But that does not bother Ramadas Kamath, 54, Infosys’s executive vice president and head of infrastructure, facilities, administration, security, and sustainability. At 6 feet 2 inches, the beefy exec has a booming voice and often thumps his desk or gazes intently at you to drive home a point. Kamath’s passion and sense of urgency landed him the job of implementing the company’s audacious green mandate in just four years, a goal unheard of in the annals of most Indian companies. New CEO Vishal Sikka—whose hands are full with the task of bringing Infosys back from a prolonged performance slump that has seen the company lose its No. 2 spot to Cognizant—tweeted in May that he’s “proud of Ramadas and the Infosys team for pioneering work in creating sustainable infrastructure that is also beautiful”.

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We are sitting in Kamath’s first-floor corner room at the Electronics City campus. Outside the campus walls, everyday traffic rages on the potholed Hosur Road, but it’s a different world inside the measurement and controls office, which Kamath is walking me through. He explains, with much waving of his arms, how Infosys is developing world-class green buildings by monitoring every piece of data that points at energy waste anywhere on campus. The idea is to integrate data picked up by various sensors into the building’s feedback management system, which in turn asks an actuator to take necessary action. The real beast: pulling data from the hundred-plus buildings and putting them together on a single diagnostic platform for a team sitting in Bengaluru. 

The nerve centre working the systems is the Central Command Centre or C3, located a few rooms away from Kamath’s office. Here, data from Infy’s 75-odd smart buildings—interconnected through a network of sensors, actuators, controllers, and feedback systems—are constantly monitored by a team of four. “If the temperature of a room touches 26°C instead of the normal 24°C, the issue is immediately flagged off, the respective campus is alerted, and the problem is quickly sorted out,” explains Swapnil Madhukar Joshi, regional manager, infrastructure and green initiatives. A building-management expert, Joshi came to Infosys from U.S.-based Johnson Controls, where he headed the U.S. and European operations. He now looks after Infosys’s smart campuses in northern and western India.

A tour of C3 reveals a giant computer screen showing data logs from every building. A flashing red alarm on the screen is an early warning, while a blue one indicates things are okay. Each team member has a PC to keep track of the mountains of data and send out early warnings on every parameter related to heating, cooling, ventilation, air handling units (AHUs), air quality, chillers, lighting, power consumed by computers, and even the quantity of water used in the washrooms.

For instance, when it comes to chilling plant efficiency, the data collected covers as many as 32 critical parameters. The team, however, analyses only the most critical; in this case, the energy required to achieve necessary cooling. “The BMS is so sophisticated that alarms start blinking in the command centre as soon as the filter of an AHU gets choked,’’ says Joshi. It also allows intra-campus and inter-campus data comparison. (Not all Infy buildings are smart. For the non-smart ones, only the energy performance index or EPI gets reflected at C3.) 

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The food court at the Pune campus doesn’t require artificial lighting or airconditioning. 

“We are constantly trying to make Infy’s buildings more intelligent so that they adapt to different weather conditions—like ramping up the chilling when there is greater heat load,’’ says Gaurang Pandya, president, building and industrial systems, at United Technologies Corporation (UTC) in India The company partnered with Infy to develop the high-tech command centre. The plan is to put the entire data bank on the cloud for easy and instant access.

he foundation of this massive juggernaut rests largely on a couple of in-house technologies. There’s the much-discussed radiant cooling, a far cheaper and more energy-efficient way of cooling buildings than the conventional method, which uses a lot of energy to compress and cool the air in big air handling units (AHUs) before channelling it through air ducts or vents. In contrast, Infy harked back to age-old wisdom and uses water as a coolant. Pipes carrying chilled water (at 16 °C) from the building’s chiller plants are embedded overhead, and under the floor slabs, helping keep the indoor temperature at a comfortable 24°C. Water has 3,400 times more heat-absorbing capacity than air, hence keeping a building cool for a longer period. Each radiant-cooled building has in place a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS), which takes care of the entire latent load (heat generated by human activity).

The technology ensures multiple benefits. For one, water is chilled at 16°C instead of the usual 7°C in a traditional heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system (HVAC), thereby saving a lot of power. Moreover, just 20% of the air inside needs cooling to take care of the latent load. Radiant cooling system occupies one-fourth of the total space taken up by a conventional HVAC, and the structural load on the roof is minimised. “There’s a 35% reduction in energy consumption, compared with the marginal rise in initial costs [for setting up the new technology],’’ points out Joshi. In effect, payback starts almost immediately as the power expenditure is noticeably trimmed.

A notch ahead of radiant cooling is Baffles, a brand-new technology which Kamath says will disrupt the HVAC industry. Compared with radiant cooling, Baffles consumes 40% less power and uses only one-third the space. With radiant cooling, it’s difficult to make structural changes in the building, drill holes or redo the roof, without puncturing the chilled-water pipes embedded at various places. But with Baffles, water pipes pass through aluminium extrusions that can be made to look like false ceilings. 

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The SDB in Hyderabad, where the experiment in radiant cooling took place 

“We have applied for a patent and hope to get it soon,’’ says Kamath. Meanwhile, the company’s Pune campus is all set to roll out Baffles as a pilot project. The site: one complete floor of software development block (SDB) 11. Success here will lead to next-gen, high-performance buildings that could be 66% more energy-efficient than the existing structures. 

Another showpiece campus is Pocharam in Hyderabad. Set across 450 acres of beautiful landscape, the campus houses five SDBs, two food courts, an upcoming employee care centre, a central sewage treatment plant, and a chiller plant, as well as two lakes and an orchard. Apart from using energy-efficient equipment and materials, Pocharam has also evolved into an R&D centre, innovating new technologies for green buildings. It was the test site for radiant cooling, and is now leading Infosys’s solar charge.

With 1,200 panels and 20 inverters on the roof of the multilevel parking lot, the campus produces 392 kW of solar power daily. “The plan is to add another 163 kW [from the rooftop], but ultimately, we would like to generate 7 MW by setting up solar parks,” says Amol Ramesh Kulkarni, regional manager, infrastructure. “Then we’ll be able to wheel some power to other campuses as well.’’

Integrating lean technologies into an intelligent BMS has to be planned from day one, when architects, utility service providers, and designers are roped in. Finding the right development partner is not easy, says Pandya of UTC. The relationship started at a chiller plant in Bengaluru where UTC changed the fixed-speed chiller (which has a compressor but not an inverter, and, therefore, runs at 100% irrespective of the heat load) to a more efficient variable-speed one, slashing power consumption by 30%. The outcome impressed Infosys and the C3 project took off. UTC has also set up a pilot project on the Thiruvananthapuram campus, where a diagnostic program monitors whether the systems located inside the building are properly hooked up. On the first day, the team discovered as many as 120 faults. 

“Our partners have to meet the efficiency benchmarks we set for them... These are sometimes better than global standards,” says Kamath. If the global standard for lighting power density (LPD)—the amount of light required for work—is .9 watt per sq. ft., Infosys asks its developers and architects to bring it down by half. Similarly, they have to ensure that the buildings have a significantly lower EPI, say, around 80 kWh per sq. m. per year, while the global benchmark stands at 95 kWh. In fact the buildings coming up at Infosys’s Jaipur campus will push this down to 70 kWh.

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s with many Infosys landmarks, its green innovations find their guiding animus in co-founder and former CEO N.R. Narayana Murthy, who is still considered a deity of sorts within the company. “Every time we took a project to him, he would enquire whether we had introduced new concepts, materials, designs, and technology. He wanted us to bring to the table at least 15 new things without compromising on comfort or efficiency,’’ remembers Kamath. Reverence for Murthy has been a big motivation for the top management to take personal interest in green goals in their respective areas, rather than treat them as someone else’s problem.

Such all-round involvement has resulted in dramatic successes: Its green buildings consumed 30% less power in 2013-14 compared with 2007-08. The company says it has reduced per-employee power consumption by 44%, water usage by 35.5%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 55%. It also claims to have met 30% of its power needs—about 75.6 million units of electricity—through green energy in FY14. During the same period, it generated over 1,100 MWh through its onsite solar PV installations. 

Ask Kamath about the cost, and pat comes the reply: “If we had continued in the same fashion as we did in 2008, we would have to spend another $80 million (Rs 505.36 crore) in electricity itself.’’ Plus, it takes 10% to 15% less in capital costs to build energy-efficient utilities because they don’t require expensive HVAC systems. The green buildings also assure greater comfort for employees, which may lead to higher productivity—not a minor attraction for an organisation that employs 1.76 lakh people. The maintenance cost per person per month: just about Rs 4,700.

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Now, other global tech titans are borrowing the Infy playbook. Google, which is setting up a seven-acre campus in India (the biggest outside the U.S.) and investing Rs 1,000 crore, has sent a team to Infosys’s Hyderabad campus to take a closer look. The search giant will spend about 12 months on planning, and construction will start around the summer of 2016. Companies like Tata Teleservices, TCS, Accenture, and even some new-age developers are flocking to Infy campuses to learn more about the new technologies.

“We are doing our bit ... sharing our data, expertise, and technologies with companies that are willing to take the plunge,” Kamath says. The company also sends its recommendations to the Indian government from the vantage point of being the largest builder in the country.

However, kamath doesn’t think many companies will find it easy to adopt the green-first approach for a number of reasons. One, there is no uniform green policy in the country, making it difficult to invest in green power projects. Worse, power tariffs, transmission costs, distribution fees, or even wheeling charges vary widely from state to state, and businesses have to pay a steep price for sourcing renewable energy.

“Rajasthan is an ideal location to set up solar parks, but then, transmitting solar power from Rajasthan to Karnataka could become a nightmare due to prohibitive costs and transmission losses that can be as high as 30%,’’ says Kamath. Those toying with the idea of installing green buildings may be put off as the Energy Conservation Building Code, which provides design norms for such buildings, vary across states.

At the end of the day, deep investments in green would make sense only if a company has a far-out-into-the-future view of itself. “Our pursuit for energy efficiency is rooted in optimism,” asserts Kamath. “Going back to a simpler life is not a step backwards—it is our investment for posterity.’’ 

It’s probably not the kind of thing Infy hawks and punters want to hear, as the leviathan of Indian IT grapples with recovery. But to stay motivated for the challenge, Infoscions needn’t look farther than Ramadas Kamath’s desk-thumping ways.