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Optimising Energy Use: TRAI consultation paper focuses on sustainable telecommunications

March 30, 2017

With the ever-increasing demand for telecom services, the energy consumption for telecom network operations has also increased significantly. However, India’s power supply situation is precarious due to uncertain grid supply, which poses a significant challenge. About 40 per cent of telecom towers face load shedding for more than 12 hours per day. Therefore, telecom tower companies are increasingly relying on diesel generators (DGs), batteries and a number of power management equipment to ensure grid backup and network availability. Currently, only about 40 per cent of power requirements are met by grid power and the remaining by DGs.

Excessive dependence on DGs poses the environmental issue of carbon emissions. In recent years, the carbon emission footprint of the telecom industry has grown manyfold. Also, the increased usage of DGs has resulted in increased energy costs. These account for 30-34 per cent of the total operational expenditure for a telecom tower company.

Thus, there is a pressing need for telecom operators and vendors to optimise their energy costs by shifting to energy efficient technologies and alternative sources of energy. Moreover, with the pervasiveness of 3G and the rapid roll-out of 4G networks, the energy demand is expected to rise further.

Against this backdrop, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recently issued a consultation paper, “Approach towards Sustainable Telecommunications”, which outlines the significance of energy efficiency in modern telecom networks and gives suggestions for optimising network performance in terms of energy demand.

Achieving energy efficiency in telecom networks

Demand management

This includes a wide range of actions and practices to reduce the demand for electricity and to shift the demand from peak to off-peak hours. Some of the initiatives taken by the industry so far are passive infrastructure sharing, replacement of old base transceiver stations (BTSs) with new generation BTSs, usage of outdoor BTSs, optimised cooling at shelters, usage of intelligent transceivers, reduction of air-conditioner load by using cold ambient air for shelter cooling and deployment of battery-operated air conditioners. In addition to these, TRAI has proposed some energy efficient technologies. These include:

• An active distributed antenna system, wherein a single antenna radiating at high power is replaced by a group of low-power antennas to cover the same area.

• Sleep-mode BTSs, which can turn the power off when the call traffic is low. This capability can be added to the site easily with minor software modifications in BTS technology. Sleep-mode technology has the potential to reduce the power consumption by more than 40 per cent under low traffic conditions and 10-15 per cent on an overall level.

• Direct current (DC) free air cooling units can be used. These consume only 208 W of power as against 1,350 W consumed by a 0.9 tonne air conditioner.

• Heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems (HVAC) along with hot aisle-cold aisle configuration, and the management of air flow in data centres can reduce the energy consumption by 25 per cent.

• Remote monitoring solutions to keep a check on energy consumption of on-site equipment on a 24x7 basis. Running business analytics on this data can give significant insights into achieving operational efficiency.

Supply management

This refers to a set of practices adopted to ensure efficiency through the electricity supply chain. Telecom service providers try to make rational use of their least efficient generating equipment through these practices. The objective is to improve the operations and maintenance of the existing equipment and upgrade it with energy efficient technologies. Some key energy efficient technologies that can be adopted to increase the energy efficiency of the power source are:

• Integrated power management systems (IPMS), which can be deployed at sites with poor grid availability where low voltage and single phasing are pertinent problems. This maximises grid power usage and reduces DG run-hours at cell sites. The IPMS helps improve the combined efficiency of the equipment by as much as 3-5 per cent.

• Variable speed DC DGs, which have a relatively flat efficiency curve and are a better solution for cell sites. Fuel consumption for DC DGs is up to 30 per cent lower than AC DGs.

• GenX, which converts DC power to AC power and has the functionality of a soft starter, can be deployed at indoor cell sites where the ambient temperature typically remains above 25 °C. The product would enable running of air conditioners on battery during grid unavailability thus avoiding DG usage.

Renewable energy solutions

Renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind, fuel cells and batteries can be deployed to achieve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions and operational costs.

Solar power is best suited for rural areas, which offer a vast expanse of land for panel installation. In urban areas, solar panels mounted on rooftops are gaining acceptance. Further, with the price of panels declining substantially in recent years, solar is becoming a more financially feasible option besides being the most easily deployable technology. However, solar sites constitute less than 10 per cent of the tower companies’ portfolio.

Wind energy is also being deployed for telecom networks in rural areas across states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and parts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where annual average wind speeds of 5-6 metres per second are available.

As compared to other technologies, fuel cell-based solutions for telecom towers are relatively new in India. Some trial projects for these solutions have been undertaken by telecom companies like Idea Cellular and Indus Towers. While the technology has proven itself through these trials, the limited availability and high price of the fuel remain a challenge that needs to be overcome for large-scale adoption.

Currently, hybrid solutions that combine DGs with renewable energy technologies and batteries are being deployed. The hybrid combination uses the best energy sources to provide quality, stable power supply for sustainable development in rural areas. The system does require DGs though for a much reduced duration of operation. It is also designed to give priority to renewable power so that the operation of generators can be minimised. However, fuel cells are being installed as a standalone solution replacing the existing DGs at some of the telecom sites.

Generally, a solar photovoltaic backup power system is designed in combination with an appropriately sized battery bank, and used to offset the operation of a backup power system like a DG for approximately four hours per day when sunlight is available. The limitation of this approach is the high initial capital investment.

In recent years, energy storage solutions such as battery technologies have emerged in a big way for storing renewable power. Batteries are used to store and supply electricity to telecom towers when grid power fails. At present, a large number of options are available in battery technology such as lead acid batteries, tubular gel VRLA, nickel-based batteries and lithium-ion batteries. A telecom service provider can choose one depending on the place of installation, average hours of usage, etc.

Areas for consultation

In its consultation paper, TRAI has invited the views of industry stakeholders on the methodology for measuring carbon emissions from telecom networks, calibration of directives issued by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) in 2012 and the approach for the implementation of renewable energy technologies.


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