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Green Initiatives: Telecom tower industry turns to renewables for better energy management

March 18, 2016

India’s telecom tower industry has undergone massive growth in the past few years, aided by the rise of the telecom industry as a whole. About 400,000 towers are installed across India and, according to an industry estimate, these numbers are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 3 per cent over the next four to five years. In the face of these massive growth opportunities, the industry continues to face the challenge of energy management at tower sites.

Telecom services have now become part of basic infrastructure, with the public demanding seamless connectivity at all times. To ensure smooth services, it is essential that telecom towers are perpetually up and running. However, the majority of telecom tower sites, in rural as well as urban areas, do not receive grid electricity for 24 hours per day. It is estimated that telecom towers in rural areas are powered by the grid for 12 hours per day on average, while towers in urban areas receive grid power for 20 hours per day. The absence of grid power at the majority of sites has forced companies to rely on diesel, so much so that diesel costs make up a significant part of the overall opex of a tower site.

Over 3 billion litres of diesel is consumed annually to power telecom towers. This has placed the telecom industry alongside industries that produce carbon emissions. Although its share in global carbon emissions is currently low compared to sectors like transportation and construction, the challenge of providing electricity to expanding networks will only become more pronounced with the increase in subscribers. Diesel consumption will go up as more operators expand networks and launch 4G/long term evolution services.

There is public and regulatory pressure to reduce energy consumption and pollution at telecom towers, especially that caused by diesel generators. This has made tower companies in India take up energy sustainability measures such as the use of alternative and renewable energy sources at sites.

Energy requirements

At present, power and fuel costs are the largest expense component, accounting for approximately 63 per cent of the total operating expense of a telecom company. According to the Indian Energy Security Scenarios 2047, a tool developed by the Indian government to assess potential energy scenarios, base transceiver stations (BTSs) consume the maximum power at tower sites. BTS configurations vary with sites, depending on the number of subscribers, area of coverage, data traffic and teledensity. Therefore, a 2/2/2 configuration BTS is generally used in rural areas and a 6/6/6 configuration BTS in urban areas. In addition, air conditioners (ACs) make up a major chunk of a telecom tower’s power consumption as they are used to cool shelters in case of BTS overheating. A 2x2x2 configuration BTS requires about 1.3 kW of power supply while a higher capacity version (4x4x4 or 6x6x6) requires 2-3 kW. With the addition of 1.5 tonne ACs, the power requirement increases to 3-4.7 kW. This adds to the overall cost of operating a tower site, along with increased diesel consumption.

Renewable energy solutions

The need to reduce opex as well as the carbon footprint has led to telecom operators and tower companies experimenting with alternative power sources. Renewable energy can help tower companies reduce emissions, energy costs as well as diesel logistics costs.

Solar power is currently the most commercialised technology among the renewable energy technologies used for powering towers. It is best suited for rural areas, which offer vast expanses of land for panel installation. In urban areas, solar panels mounted on rooftops are gaining acceptance. With the decline in panel prices in recent years, solar is becoming a more financially feasible option apart from being the most easily deployable among renewables.

Another popular renewable energy source is biomass, which is an economical and commercially viable solution for sites with an average load of over 5 kW and grid outages of more than eight hours. Fuel cells and wind energy are used as well.

Many companies are already testing towers with technologies like solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, fuel cells, biomass and biofuels. For instance, Indus Towers has a total of 115,000 towers, of which around 40,000 operate as diesel-free sites and close to 50,000 run without ACs. The company says that green initiatives have helped it reduce energy costs by more than 40 per cent and diesel consumption by 37 per cent in the past four years. Indus Towers’ investments in green initiatives are estimated to be touching Rs 5 billion during 2015-16. Meanwhile, in September 2015, GTL Limited awarded a contract to UK-based Intelligent Energy to supply energy management services across more than 27,400 telecom towers in India. Intelligent Energy uses a combination of renewable energy technologies to power telecom tower sites.

Viom Networks is aiming to make more and more sites diesel-free; by the end of 2015, it had achieved this in over 35 per cent of them. The company has also piloted 50 energy storage and energy generation ideas at its sites. Meanwhile, ATC India has installed over 2 MWp of solar plants at 450 sites spread across Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. In addition, as part of its Green Towers P7 programme, Bharti Infratel has commissioned nearly 1,200 solar-powered telecom towers.

Emergence of RESCOs

In 2012, the telecom industry adopted the renewable energy service company (RESCO) model, under which specialised energy generation companies partner with tower companies to meet their energy needs locally. Power is generated from renewable sources, mainly solar, and sold to telecom infrastructure companies on a metered basis. A few RESCOs are currently active in the market. For instance, Gurgaon-based OMC Power is engaged in developing small-scale power plants based on renewable energy sources. It sells electricity from these plants through microgrids installed at telecom tower sites in rural areas. This power is first used to run cellular towers, with the leftover capacity powering nearby village homes and businesses. Similarly, Bessemer Ventures-backed Applied Solar Technologies (AST) is helping tower companies reduce their diesel dependence by implementing solar hybrid solutions. AST builds and operates these solar installations and takes over the power supply management of each site. It uses a combination of solar PV, battery backups and diesel generators, making it a hybrid energy solution that optimises the use of various sources. While the model has had a limited uptake, it holds immense promise in addressing energy management needs at tower sites.

The way forward

On the policy front, the Department of Telecommunications has mandated that the proportion of hybrid-powered tower sites be increased to 75 per cent in rural areas and 33 per cent in urban areas by 2020. However, this is a formidable challenge because hybridising a tower site involves significant capex. In a scenario where tower companies are struggling to meet their opex, additional capex is not desirable.

To ensure that green technologies are implemented on a mass scale, the government will have to look for ways to provide tower companies with financial aid in the form of incentives like tax holidays or accelerated depreciation. Some industry experts even suggest that they be allowed to trade renewable energy certificates as an added incentive to adopt green sources of power.

Going ahead, the telecom sector is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace, with rural areas providing a larger share of opportunities. Until the government can deliver on its promise of 24x7 power supply for all, the sector’s dependence on off-grid power will only increase. While market forces are driving the move towards greater renewable energy use, policy support can help this transition.

 
 

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