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Keen on green: Telecom operators explore renewables to cut costs and emissions

November 15, 2010

The Indian telecom industry is a key power consumer with over 330,000 towers, each consuming between 1,000-3,000 watt-hours. However, given the precarious power situation (with peaking deficits of 11-12 per cent), telecom towers are profoundly dependent on diesel and are estimated to consume over 2.5 billion litres of diesel per annum.

Energy cost currently accounts for 35 percent of total telecom operator costs. Moreover, as the number of towers grows, associated environmental concerns have also mounted. Recent studies undertaken by various telecom vendors and the government indicate that telecom towers alone produce over 550 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Going green has therefore become a necessity for telecom operators in a market where margins are nosediving due to tariff wars, denting the profitability of service providers. Operators are therefore exploring all possible options to reduce dependence on diesel and are opting for greener technologies. The government also seems geared up to encourage perceptible change in the power usage pattern of the telecom industry.

Renewable Watch looks at the alternative energy options available to telecom companies and the initiatives being undertaken by operators, vendors and the government to promote alternative power sources. 

Green options

Solar has so far emerged as the most preferred of renewable technologies on offer primarily because of the availability of abundant sunlight across the country.

Other alternatives are also being adopted. Wind turbines for example, are particularly relevant in areas with significant wind velocities. Moreover, operators are also adopting solar-wind hybrid solutions, which help lower fossil fuel consumptions by up to 80 per cent. Base stations powered by such solutions offer economically viable alternatives since they lower both operating and maintenance expenditures.

Companies are also undertaking research and development activities for producing bio-fuels from renewable energy sources, such as agricultural waste and residues, to power existing diesel gensets. Other solutions like fuel cell systems are also being adopted. These help to replace batteries and DGs in urban areas. “Fuel cell” is a generic term encompassing a wide range of technologies that typically work by transforming the chemical energy of a fuel (usually hydrogen) directly into electrical energy. Fuel cells can generate power ranging from 1 watt (cellphone) to several megawatts (small factories). Hydrogen itself can be extracted in many different ways from different sources.

Operator initiatives 

All telecom operators as well as tower companies in India have started installing and experimenting with various alternative power solutions. 

One of the pioneers in this area was Idea Cellular, which partnered with Ericsson and GSMA's Development Fund to develop bio-fuels as a power source for wireless networks in rural India. In a pilot project, such fuels were used to power mobile base stations in Latur, Maharashtra, where grid power is highly unreliable. 

Presently, Idea Cellular is experimenting with hybrid solar solutions. It has begun with 20 sites at present and intends to take it to 500 eventually. Another initiative from Idea is to have a higher number of outdoor base transceiver stations (BTSs) as they consume relatively lesser energy compared to indoor BTSs. 

Another initiative was undertaken by Reliance Communications (RCOM), which installed windmills on its towers at Kunustara and Murugathal in West Bengal. Moreover, the operator also approached Pune-based solar panel manufacturer Machinocraft, for powering cell sites using solar power. 

It is currently exploring the feasibility of using solar energy in areas where an electric connection is not available. RCOM has also deployed bio-fuel plants to run its rural telecom networks in several areas.

Bharti Airtel, which was the second largest buyer of diesel after Indian Railways till 2007, when it spun off its cellular towers into a separate entity (Indus Towers), has already conducted trials using wind power for sites in coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Bengal. It has also conducted some pilot projects on solar power and bio-fuels.

Bharti Infratel has already installed 500 solar sites on ground and is planning to take this to 2,000 soon. By end 2010-11, 30 per cent of its sites are likely to be using alternative fuels.

According to GTL Infrastructure, energy management can result in 10-12 per cent reductions in energy cost. It has set a target of having 500 solar sites by March 2011. The company intends to be an all-green infrastructure provider by 2012-13.

Viom Networks (formerly WTTIL-Quippo) too has identified 20 per cent of its worst performing sites in terms of energy consumption and is working towards making them more efficient. It has set a target of having 1,000 solar-powered sites and 500 fuel cell-powered sites in 2010-11.

Vendor initiatives

Vendors have been increasingly flooding the market with renewable energy solutions. For instance, Moserbaer offers customised solar energy solutions to minimise operational complexity and maximise financial benefits. It also provides customised hybrid systems with other resources like wind to use potential windy sites to optimise costs.

Leading equipment makers such as Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) have also installed hundreds of base-stations powered by solar panels, wind turbines or bio-fuels, mostly in parts of the developing world where there is no electricity grid. NSN is currently offering operators autonomous sites, which can be configured with solar and wind systems to suit the local environmental conditions. Recently, NSN has also entered into a global collaboration with ACME Tele Power, whereby the two companies will work together to offer efficient operation, maintenance and energy management solutions to telecom operators in India. ACME Tele Power is focusing on eco-friendly technologies such as green shelters, nano-cooled shelters and battery coolers.

The Indian telecom equipment maker Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL) has launched the first commercial deployment of solar-powered GSM systems. This system works on solar panels, and can run without being powered for three days while the battery needs to be replaced every five years.

Apart from network solutions, these vendors are also coming up with renewable power solutions for mobile handsets. For example, with Sony Ericsson, Ericsson has developed a mobile phone village solar charger. This innovation, intended for use in villages almost anywhere in the world, is capable of recharging at least 30 mobile phone batteries per day and eight phones simultaneously.

Government initiatives

A major obstacle in the uptake of renewable energy for running telecom networks is the high-cost business case for installing the infrastructure. The government, over the past few years, has stepped up its efforts towards helping the operators manage energy costs  and aid overall growth. In July 2009, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) decided to offer financial support from the Universal Service Obligation (USO) fund to telecom players using renewable energy sources to power their base stations in rural areas. DoT launched a scheme whereby Rs 5 million per installation was to be given for mobile towers running on renewable energy.

The scheme was launched on a pilot basis for 20 areas and was limited to telecom infrastructure companies, who had earlier won the contract for rolling out 8,000 cellular towers in 500 districts. Most of the pilots have so far been successful resulting in substantial power saving, some are still ongoing. This subsidy will be extended to the second phase of the USO Fund's rural infrastructure project that involves setting up 11,000 towers in remote areas.

In a separate move, a panel was set up by the government in September 2010 to promote and push the use of renewable energy for the Indian telecom sector. Ajay Bhattacharaya, chairman, the USO fund, will be heading the five member panel, which has been asked to submit a set of guidelines by end-2010, for ways to promote renewable energy options in the telecom sector. The panel is part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, an initiative which aims at enabling a shift from a fossil fuel based economy to renewable energy, such as solar and wind.

The government is also likely to make it mandatory for mobile phone towers to be powered by solar energy. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is undertaking a test project on the adoption of solar power panels on 600 towers. The trials are to be completed by mid-2011, post which the project will be implemented nationally. A funding scheme for the same is being worked out.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India  too is in the process of preparing a consultation paper on "green telecom" which offers guidance for the use of eco-friendly equipment in the ICT sector. The paper is expected to address critical issues like the carbon footprint-reduction of the telecom industry,  the need for carbon credit policy for the sector, methods/options to reduce the carbon foot print by ICT industry in India, standardisation of green telecom equipment and incentive for their adoption, and a framework for monitoring carbon emission and corrective action for telecom sector.

Conclusion

In all, a renewable energy revolution could take off in the telecom industry. The ongoing deployment of alternative energy solutions by operators across the board has already helped to make green an important ingredient of all the new telecom equipment and products being rolled-out. As these initiatives scale up, the impact should visible lower both operating costs as well as carbon emission levels in the sector.

 
 

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