Data centre operators and investors in China have become more cautious in pursuing new deals this year after the government tightened its grip on the power-hungry sector through stringent rules and monitoring, executives from APG Asset Management, Gaw Capital Partners and Baker McKenzie FenXun told Mingtiandi’s APAC Data Centre forum on Thursday.
Johnny Shao, managing director for investments with Gaw’s mainland team, noted in the Greater China-focused forum that Chinese authorities have implemented strict planning requirements and tight monitoring for data centre power consumption, with major cities like Beijing and Shanghai even moving to shut down older facilities that exceed energy efficiency standards.
“The compliance of the project is a key for long term success,” Shao said. “At the very beginning, people will probably try to expand as fast as they can by all means, but eventually as governments (tighten regulations) I think the market will probably be much more transparent and open, and it will reward investors or players who have high levels of compliance.”
Supporting Shao’s claims, Zhang Hong, head of the private equity practice at joint venture law firm Baker McKenzie FenXun said in the forum – which was sponsored by Yardi – that the stricter regulations have caused investments in mainland data centres to slow this year. Sales of income-earning data centre assets in the first eight months of 2022 amounted to $490 million according to data from MSCI, amounting to just a fraction of last year’s all-time high of $3.76 billion.
Compliance Is Key
China’s sustainability guidelines for data centres are “quite harsh but doable” according to Shao. He noted that local governments in northern China commonly aim for power usage effectiveness ratios (PUE) of 1.2, while in the south, where the warmer climate creates a greater cooling burden, target PUE of 1.3 are more common. In Shanghai and Beijing regulators are already moving to force the closure of some older facilities with PUE exceeding 1.7.
Beyond certifying standards of design and construction, officials have also established daily monitoring of operations to ensure the facilities are staying within consumption guidelines for power and water. Non-compliant operators can be slapped with fines.
Baker McKenzie’s Hong said her team has witnessed greater caution among investors and operators since Chinese regulators started ramping up enforcement in the sector late last year, but said that the change in environment is also creating opportunities for experienced players to acquire projects from less adept practitioners.
“I expect that more experienced [operators] and those players who have a better understanding of the China market and the Chinese government’s requirements will have a better shot in terms of the investment opportunities, and also have better radar to source or to identify the suitable targets,” she said.
Sustainable Partners Only
As stricter rules put more pressure on the sector, particularly on smaller operators, Shao said that consolidation has come to the mainland data centre market, and that this trend could last through next year, as experienced investors seize the opportunity to buy up capacity.
Since entering China’s data centre market in 2018, Gaw has paced itself, making just a handful of acquisitions as the private equity firm has prioritised taking on only projects can be fully compliant with sustainability guidelines and had approval for adequate power.
The panellists noted parallels between China’s regulations for data centres and those in other markets around the region, including Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore – which recently set out guidelines for data centre development requiring new facilities to have a PUE of 1.3 or lower, as it lifted a more than two year moratorium on development of new projects.
“Every single government wants to have more energy efficient data centres to be built in the country so I think this is something commonly shared by governments,” Shao said.
In the Hong Kong market, Joelin Ma, a director with the non-listed real estate investment team for Asia at APG, said that conversion of industrial buildings for data centre use is more common than greenfield development primarily due to scarcity of available sites in the city.
However, Ma noted that, should new land be available, greenfield development projects provide investors with the opportunity to create more efficient, more sustainable projects, with APG having already invested in a pair of data centre operators active in Greater China.
“I think from APG’s perspective, it is key to work with a partner who has a clear pathway to drive sustainability going forward,” she said. “It is always important for us to identify a partner who has capability to do further.”
During last year the Dutch pension fund manager took a 20 percent stake it purchased in Hong Kong-based firm OneAsia after earlier investing for a 19.1 percent share in mainland hyperscale specialist Chindata.
Japan, Korea Up Next
Following Thursday’s session, MTD TV will be back next week with panels focusing first on opportunities in Japan and Korea, and then on the challenge of tracking sustainability initiatives in APAC data centres.
In the Japan and Korea session at 10:00 AM Hong Kong time on Tuesday, 20 September, MTD TV will welcome ESR chief executive officer for data centres Diarmid Massey; Jing Zhou, senior director for alternatives and strategic transactions at Nuveen; Sam Lee, managing director for market and commercial development at EdgeConneX, and Bob Tan, an executive director with the data centre unit of JLL’s capital markets division.
The sustainability panel takes place at 10:00 AM Hong Kong time on Thursday, 22 September.
In that session, viewers will hear from SC Zeus Data Centers CEO Joe Gooi; SDAX chief sustainability officer Tan Bee Lay; Josephine Yip, senior director for APAC investments and asset management at Ivanhoé Cambridge and Cushman & Wakefield co-head of sustainability services for Greater China Alton Wong, who is also an executive director and head of valuation and advisory services for Greater China.
In October, Mingtiandi takes MTD TV on the road for our Singapore Focus Forum, featuring speakers from Blackstone, Warburg Pincus, Hines and more on stage in the Lion City.