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Optimising Energy Use: Tower companies’ initiatives to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint

November 15, 2016

Managing the growing energy requirements of tower sites in a cost-effective manner is a challenging task for the telecom industry. To this end, tower companies and operators are experimenting with a host of solutions and strategies, ranging from indoor-to-outdoor site conversions, free cooling units, diesel genset (DGs)-battery hybrids, new energy storage techniques and products, and renewable energy technologies. However, there is a need to improve the financial viability of these solutions to ensure high returns on investment with lower operations and maintenance costs. Industry experts share their views on the emerging trends in the energy management space, the deployment of renewable energy solutions, the role of storage systems and the challenges faced by tower companies in implementing energy management solutions...

Balaji-R-Indus-TowerSharat-Chandra-MD-TelEnergy-TechnologiesTushar-Kapadia-VP-GTL-Infrastructure

 

What are the key trends in the energy management space in the telecom sector?

Balaji R.

The telecom infrastructure industry is undergoing a paradigm shift. With a renewed focus on green technology, the industry is trying to become more socially responsible and laying greater emphasis on sustainability. Renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind are being used as long-term power solutions for telecom towers. Moving away from dependence on diesel generators as the primary power source has significantly brought down carbon emissions. Along with adopting renewable energy solutions, the telecom tower industry has taken various steps to gradually make its tower sites diesel-free. Sites where the dependence on diesel is eliminated completely are termed green sites. One of the key accomplishments in reducing power consumption has been replacing air-conditioning units with free cooling units (FCUs). Telecom equipment needs a temperature-controlled environment and, like air conditioners, FCUs enable heat transfer between the surroundings and the shelter, but with a much reduced energy consumption.

Sharat Chandra

With the launch of services by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, there is a distinct shift towards high speed wireless broadband access. This means that there is a greater energy requirement by the network as it is now virtually impossible to distinguish if the use of communication resource is towards voice or data services. To this end, the use of hybrid solutions for energy management comprising robust automation and lithium-ion storage, and renewable energy (where technically feasible) is increasing with a greater geographical footprint.

Conventional indoor shelter-based deployments have almost totally been replaced with outdoor or pole-integrated solutions, where the base transceiver station (BTS), and energy storage and rectifier equipment are mounted within the tower structure itself.

Tushar Kapadia

This year has been eventful on the energy management front. On the supply side, while there is a trend of improving grid power availability, tower companies, on their part, have focused on energy management solutions and deployed green sites with reduced diesel consumption. On the demand side, telecom operators have worked intensely to swap old-generation indoor BTSs with power efficient multi-technology outdoor BTSs or baseband unit-remote radio unit. A large number of sites are now free of air-conditioning units, shelters and diesel generators. Thus, the objective of optimising power and fuel costs is being pursued by both tower companies and their telecom operator customers.

What energy saving strategies are being explored by telecom tower companies in India? How has the experience been so far?

Balaji R.

Indus Towers provides cost-effective and innovative energy solutions for powering our customers’ active equipment. Wherever possible, we power our towers using grid energy from the state electricity boards. Diesel is utilised only where reliable grid energy is not available. Our innovative solutions ensure that an optimum amount of fuel is used. We also operate solar-powered towers.

The non-availability of continuous and reliable grid power at certain places necessitates the use of DG to power such sites. We are committed to reducing the use of diesel at our sites over time and have successfully converted around 50,000 sites across 15 circles into green sites. This represents about 50 per cent of our tower portfolio, making us the leader in the telecom tower industry in terms of the deployment of green sites.

Sharat Chandra

Active cooling or air conditioning is the biggest energy guzzler. Operators have been at pains to minimise the use of energy for air conditioning by transforming indoor sites to outdoor wherever possible. Where not fully feasible, we have at least moved the battery units out, while replacing old banks due for replacement. This brings in significant energy savings, often more than 15 per cent of the energy costs being spent by the operator.

Conventional indoor shelter-based deployments are being replaced with outdoor or pole-integrated solutions, where the BTS and energy storage and rectifier equipment are mounted within the tower structure itself.

Minimising (and eventually shutting down) DG run-time is a critical goal that each operator is chasing with determination, technology and process management. Hybrid energy solutions that support energy generation from renewable sources, energy storage into deep discharge battery units and automation-enabled intelligent infrastructure that allows monitoring, metering and control establish a robust framework for energy saving on a massive scale.

The overall experience has been mixed but the greatest potential lies in the large-scale deployment of hybrid solutions, especially with lithiumion batteries in grid-deficient geographies. There exists an opportunity to reduce DG run-time by up to six to eight hours in locations where they currently run for 12-16 hours.

Tushar Kapadia

For tower companies, it is vital to undertake energy saving as well as cost saving initiatives. Undoubtedly, for reducing diesel consumption, there is a need to undertake several measures ranging from close monitoring and tracking to purchase of more battery banks and gaining greater access to grid power.

With the voice and data usage patterns of subscribers changing rapidly, it is challenging to make projections about BTS power consumption. The power consumption of 4G sites has risen significantly over the past few months.

What has been the response of the telecom tower industry to the adoption of green energy solutions? What has been the progress in meeting the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) green telecom target?

Balaji R.

There has been a significant shift in the interplay between various stakeholders – organisations, society and the environment. The stakeholder expectation from organisations has completely transformed. Leading companies are expected to not only manage sustainability impacts within their operations but to look at their entire value chain – upstream and downstream. Post the financial crisis, the issues of transparency and accountability have gained paramount importance even in the context of sustainability. The regulatory environment with respect to sustainability-related disclosure requirements is constantly changing.

Through its “Shut AC” initiative, Indus Towers has converted over 40,000 sites from indoor to outdoor (non-AC) by shutting down ACs across the country, resulting in a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

The 50,000 green sites of Indus Towers use innovative solutions like FCUs and fast charging battery banks to reduce energy consumption. Through this, the company has been driving its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint across the country. As a part of its efforts, Indus Towers has been able to successfully reduce 68 per cent of its diesel consumption since inception, despite the growth in networks.

Sharat Chandra

The tower industry faces the challenge of delivering five nines availability of its infrastructure, including power, to operators. This, when utility supply is erratic, bursty and unpredictable. While tower companies are not experts in either generating energy or managing it, the task of doing both these on a pan-Indian level in remote sites is indeed onerous. Meeting DoT’s mandate was not easy and that is what has happened. The bigger players with financial bandwidth are able to take technology calls on renewable deployments to some extent, but the smaller ones have had cosmetic deployments only. Consolidation in the operator space and now in the tower company domain augurs well for greater adoption of green energy solutions as smaller, and often cash-strapped, players will merge with bigger ones and benefit from scale, technology, financial muscle, processes, tools and trunking efficiency.

Tushar Kapadia

Climate change is a global concern and the right measures for reducing the carbon footprint are welcome. The government has recently agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement and has also set an aggressive plan for 175 GW of renewable energy generation by 2022. The issue is relevant for all major industrial sectors. It is a well-known fact that telecom towers contribute less than 2 per cent to India’s total carbon footprint.

With regard to the DoT directives of January 2012, various initiatives have been taken by telecom operators and tower companies to reduce or minimise power and diesel consumption. Enhanced battery backup and indoor-to-outdoor site conversion have reduced the carbon footprint per tenant. Now, over 20 per cent of towers are consuming less than 200 litres in six months and these are categorised as diesel-free sites. Further, tower companies have carried out pilot projects of various green technology solutions such as solar photovoltaic panels, biodiesel and biomass gasifiers. However, owing to the high capex needed for large-scale deployments and implementation difficulties, the industry has requested DoT to review its directives. The time is right for the formulation of a uniform policy with parity across all sectors rather than for telecom in isolation.

What role can energy storage systems play in telecom site operations? What are the cost economics of deploying these solutions?

Sharat Chandra

Energy storage is imperative in a grid-deficient market like India. Whether in the metros where power availability could average more than 20 hours per day, or in suburban India where it could be 12-16 hours, advanced valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries will continue to play an important role. What must change, however, is the operational discipline of use. The manner in which batteries are currently managed in most tower infrastructures is questionable, both in terms of preventive maintenance as well as operational cycles of charge and discharge.

If the storage solution is designed well and operated and managed optimally, this can be the single largest contributor to energy savings for the telecom tower industry.

Tushar Kapadia

The issue of storage is very important for understanding and appreciating energy management efforts. Due to the significant gap in power generation and the rising energy demand of the country, energy storage is very important for ensuring round-the-clock operations of telecom tower sites.

The cost economics for storage solutions depends on the product’s initial cost, life cycle, round trip efficiency, depth of discharge, charge-discharge pattern and maintenance costs. For VRLA batteries, the typical cost of energy storage is Rs 18-Rs 20 per DC kWh.

What are the key issues and challenges faced by telecom companies in implementing energy management solutions?

Balaji R.

The significant increase in mobile data usage and the advent of high speed networks exert tremendous load on power consumption, leading to higher costs for customers and a greater environmental impact. We feel that within the industry, short-term sustainability objectives need to be modified, linked and woven together to carve a long-term sustainability strategy.

Some of the key issues faced in implementing energy management solutions are:

• Waste management: Expansion in the telecom industry will exacerbate the issues related to waste generation and subsequent management.

• Compliance: Setting up passive telecom infrastructure entails different site acquisition procedures and clearances/ permits from multiple stakeholders depending on the state in which the site is located.

• Skill upgradation of field staff: Deploying field staff that effectively adopts new technologies and engages with customers and landlords to provide high quality services is a major issue.

Sharat Chandra

The biggest challenge in the implementation of energy management solutions by telecom companies is that most solutions are capital intensive and must, therefore, be assessed for their financial viability before large-scale deployment is taken up. Making energy available by itself is not a solution for telecom, what is needed is energy management solutions. Renewable energy is a cost-effective solution for the operation of telecom infrastructure. If the telecom infrastructure is suboptimally designed for load, capacity and heat management, the outcome from renewable energy sources will be drowned in managing wasteful consumption of energy.

Tushar Kapadia

In India, most of the states do not have 24x7 grid power. Hence, for round-the-clock operation of telecom sites, secondary sources such as diesel generators and energy storage solutions are essential for energy management solutions. The key supply-side challenges are power outages, inferior quality of power and pilferage. On the demand side, tower companies are required to constantly review the change of BTS load and number of tenants, and accordingly make provisions for the right capacity of batteries and diesel generators.

 
 

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