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Energy Management Measures: Telecom industry’s strategies to reduce its carbon footprint

March 23, 2018

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) consultation paper, “Approach Towards Sustainable Telecommunications” released in January 2017, energy costs account for as much as 25 per cent of an operator’s network operation expenditure. In addition, a typical communications company spends approximately one per cent of its revenues on energy. Apart from the financial burden, the rising energy consumption by the telecom sector takes a toll on the environment as well.

 

In recent years, telecom companies have been increasingly focusing on energy management and have adopted several strategies in this context, such as energy storage solutions, renewable energy technologies, conversion of sites from indoor to outdoor, free cooling units (FCUs) and diesel-free sites.

Trends and initiatives

Indoor-to-outdoor conversion of tower sites

The industry has been converting high-energy-demanding indoor tower sites to outdoor sites by implementing a number of energy efficiency measures. Indoor sites require air conditioning, which accounts for approximately 30 per cent of the site’s operating expenditure. Over the past few years, this conversion has reduced the energy requirement of sites. This has been possible through the replacement of air conditioners with FCUs and natural cooling units.

Apart from this, companies have installed advanced energy efficient base transceiver stations (BTSs) and high-temperature outdoor BTSs, which has led to a massive drop in power consumption. In addition, efficient rectifiers and intelligent power management systems have been deployed for power loss reduction. Bharti Airtel’s deployment of energy efficient BTSs has helped the company reduce its power consumption by a minimum of 30 per cent over the past four to five years. In 2016-17, the company deployed 4,301 energy-saving BTSs and 7,206 outdoor sites. Apart from this, it is using solar natural cooling units to avoid air conditioning in less testing temperatures in a bid to reduce its consumption of grid power. Besides, FCUs have been deployed at Airtel’s 48,973 tower sites while 50,000 sites have been moved from indoor to outdoor. To further mitigate power consumption and the associated costs, the company has deployed a solar-diesel generator (DG) hybrid solution, which uses solar panels of 3-7 kW capacity along with battery banks. This has helped the company to reduce the number of daily running hours of DGs from 20 to six by providing 18 hours of power. During 2016-17, the company installed 3,263 such solutions aggregating 17.4 MWp of capacity.

Meanwhile, nearly 10,500 of Idea Cellular’s sites have been converted from indoor to outdoor. Also, around 19 per cent of its towers are run on hybrid power, which led to a reduction of 52,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2016. Further, the company’s reconfiguration of sites has led to an additional reduction of 62,000 tonnes in CO2 emissions. More than 40 per cent of BTSs at Idea’s tower sites are outdoors, which has helped cut energy consumption by a minimum of 25 per cent. In addition, 90 per cent of servers are virtualised across data centres, resulting in a one-third reduction in power consumption.

Indus Towers has also been actively working towards reducing its carbon footprint and managing its power expenditure. In its latest Sustainability Report 2016-17, the company has stated that it converted 14,423 indoor sites to outdoor during the course of the year and reduced its diesel consumption by 6.98 per cent as compared to the preceding fiscal. In addition, the company managed to increase the count of total green sites to 59,788 in 2016-17 from 50,461 in 2015-16, an increase of 18.48 per cent per annum. Further, the company was able to reduce its per-tenancy energy consumption by 2.98 per cent in 2016-17 as compared to 2015-16.

Energy storage solutions

Energy storage solutions are crucial to ensuring uninterrupted connectivity in places where grid power is unreliable or unavailable. However, the use of energy storage solutions is not limited to such areas and offers significant value as an alternative to DG sets. Power from batteries is approximately 1.5 times more expensive than power from the grid, while power from DGs is three times or more expensive than grid power.

The telecom industry has been deploying a variety of energy storage solutions such as lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion), valve regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries, lead-acid batteries, flow batteries, thermal energy storage solutions and protection circuit module batteries. The use of different types of batteries has evolved over the years. Initially, VRLA batteries were used to provide backup power to BTSs. However, due to various limitations such as quick discharge, slow charging, shorter lifespan, air conditioning requirements and cell pilferage issues, more efficient battery technologies have come to the forefront. The new batteries charge faster, require lesser space, and have longer discharge times and high round-trip efficiencies.

Li-ion batteries have found the most application at  tower sites owing to their compact size, quick charging and slow discharge features. Besides, they are  suitable for cyclic use. These batteries are suitable for small cells and microcells given their benefits in terms of size, weight, charge and discharge times as compared to other battery technologies.

Renewable energy technologies

Driven by the government’s ambitious plans to scale up the country’s renewable energy capacity, the telecom sector has seen increased adoption of renewable energy solutions. At present, solar power is the most popular technology in the telecom sector given the significant decline in its cost and its suitability for deployment in rural areas. Meanwhile, wind energy is also gaining popularity and being deployed at tower sites. Deploying a lightweight wind turbine can reduce diesel consumption by up to 50 per cent in rural areas and by up to 100 per cent at repeater sites.

In light of the operational and financial benefits offered by renewable energy sources, various industry players have adopted renewable energy solutions at their tower sites. For instance, Indus Towers has deployed renewable energy solutions comprising solar and biomass at more than 1,100 tower sites across India in the past three years. It plans to further scale up its renewable energy deployment and is targeting to cover 50 per cent of all its telecom sites by 2021.

Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel has over 3,200 solar power-enabled towers deployed by its various infrastructure providers. The company has installed 17 rooftop solar plants with a total generation capacity of 1 MWp at its main switching centres over the past five years. In addition, Airtel has deployed rooftop solar plants at three other locations with an installed capacity of 193 kWp. Idea Cellular’s total portfolio of hybrid renewable energy (including power purchase agreements) is close to 12 MW. The operator has also collaborated with the United States Trade Development Agency and conducted trials on solar hybrid methanol-based fuel cell systems to power its telecom towers. Further, under its on-site solar implementation plan, Idea Cellular has installed a 25 kW solar plant on the roof of its switching centre in Delhi.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited has partnered with Vihaan Networks Limited to set up 1,893 solar-fuelled sites across Arunachal Pradesh. This is a part of the government’s Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for the north-eastern region, which was approved by the cabinet in September 2014.

Challenges and the way forward

Although energy management in the telecom sector has evolved significantly, it is premature to paint an overoptimistic picture at this stage. The sector continues to consume a huge amount of diesel and has an alarming carbon footprint. TRAI’s target of powering nearly 75 per cent and 33 per cent of towers through hybrid solutions in urban and rural areas respectively has been largely unmet. While grid expansion and stable power supply in rural areas are the most logical solutions to reduce the industry’s diesel consumption, progress has been slow. The sector continues to be weighed down by legacy high electricity tariffs despite being granted infrastructure status.

 
 

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