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Towering Costs: Telecom companies explore alternative energy solutions

February 17, 2011

Over the past few years, the telecom sector has emerged as a key consumer of power with its requirements estimated at over 4,550 MW per day. With over 330,000 towers, each consuming between 1,000 and 3,000 watt-hours, the energy costs of telecom operators constitute a large proportion of their total cost.

About 50,000 towers need to be added each year for the next five years and most of the future demand is expected to come from the rural areas. With erratic power supply and peaking power deficits of 11-12 per cent in rural areas, telecom towers are hugely dependent on diesel and are estimated to consume over 2.5 billion litres of diesel per annum. In fact, Indus Towers is the second largest consumer of diesel after Indian Railways.

Energy costs currently account for 35 per cent of total telecom operator costs and according to industry estimates, tower companies spend Rs 100 billion on buying diesel for their back-up generator sets each year. Moreover, as the number of towers grows, associated environmental concerns are also mounting. Recent studies by various telecom vendors and the government indicate that telecom towers produce over 550 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Given the rising concern over energy conservation, there is now a stronger focus on alternative energy sources and efficient energy utilisation in the telecom sector. The entire telecom ecosystem, including power solution providers, operators and vendors, is working towards adopting alternative sources of energy and other energy efficiency solutions like outdoor base transceiver systems (BTSs), free cooling units and fuel economiser circuits to manage their energy use better.

Energy efficiency solutions 

Most telecom companies are adopting a multi-pronged approach to lower their energy costs and utilise power more efficiently. For instance, given the high energy consumed by a BTS, its capacity is being increased to optimise tower density. Another initiative has been the increasing adoption of outdoor BTSs as they have a longer life and can perform in extreme climatic conditions. Using an outdoor BTS helps reduce power and fuel costs to the extent of 25 per cent.

Service providers are also painting the exterior of base stations white in order to deflect the sun. Besides this, they are trying to save power by turning these base stations off when the load is less.

The use of energy efficient shelters is another major innovation that is finding application in cellular sites. Moreover, since almost 50 per cent of the energy consumed at a mobile base station is devoted to air conditioning, a lot of work is being put into designing electronics that can work in temperatures of up to 55°C without the need for air conditioning.

Green options 

A study by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) has shown that by using non-conventional energy sources, a telecom operator with 4,000 base stations can save more than 43 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of energy annually, which is equivalent to 70 per cent of the operator’s average annual consumption. Thus, the telecom sector is betting high on renewable options for the future.

Solar has emerged as the most preferred renewable energy technology, primarily because of the availability of abundant sunlight across the country. The main advantage of deploying a solar-powered tower is that the installation provides value for 30-40 years because it is easier to maintain.

However, alternative sources of energy like solar will be preferred only in cases where the power requirement is less than 50 watts. If additional power is needed, say, 500 kWh, the cost of installing solar PV panels becomes higher than the cost of the cell site.

Currently, despite the relatively low opex, solar energy-based sites require considerably higher capex with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels costing as much as Rs 350,000 per kilowatt. There is also considerable scope for a PV-DG hybrid solution if technology innovations can help bring down PV prices.

Other alternatives are also being explored and adopted. Wind turbines, for example, are particularly relevant in areas with significant wind velocities. Moreover, operators are adopting solar-wind hybrid solutions that help lower fossil fuel consumption by up to 80 per cent.

Companies are also undertaking research and development activities to produce biofuels 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. Fuel cell is a generic term encompassing a wide range of technologies that typically work by directly transforming the chemical energy of a fuel (usually hydrogen) into electrical energy. Fuel cells can generate power ranging from 1 watt (cellphone) to several megawatts (small factories). These help replace batteries and DGs in urban areas.

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 biofuels as a power source for wireless networks in rural India. Currently, Idea Cellular is experimenting with hybrid solar solutions. It has begun with 20 sites and intends to eventually take it to 500.

Another initiative was undertaken by Reliance Communications (RCOM), which installed windmills on its towers at Kunustara and Murugathal in West Bengal. The operator also approached Pune-based solar panel manufacturer Machinocraft for powering cell sites using solar power. RCOM has also deployed biofuel plants to run its telecom networks in several rural areas.

Bharti airtel has conducted trials using wind power for sites in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Bengal. It has also conducted some pilot projects on solar power and biofuels. Bharti Infratel has already installed 500 solar sites and is planning to take this to 2,000 soon. It was also presented the Green Mobile Award for Best Green Product/Service for its P7 Green Tower initiative at the 2011 GSMA annual Global Mobile Awards.

GTL Infrastructure has set a target of setting up 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 by end-2011.

Vendor initiatives 

Vendors have been increasingly flooding the market with renewable energy solutions. In fact, given the strong demand from the sector, companies in this space have even set up separate divisions to develop customised solutions for telecom. For instance, Moser Baer offers customised solar energy solutions to minimise operational complexity and maximise financial benefits. It also provides customised hybrid systems using other resources like wind to use potential windy sites to optimise costs.

Leading equipment makers such as Ericsson and NSN have installed hundreds of base stations powered by solar panels, wind turbines or biofuels, 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 local environmental conditions.

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

Government initiatives 

Over the past few years, the government has become increasingly more conscious of the cost and environment-related implications of the growing energy needs of the telecom sector. It has stepped up its efforts to help operators manage energy costs, adopt alternative energy options and aid overall growth.

Recently, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) initiated a consultation process to help the telecom sector go green. The regulator has stated that as much as 2 billion litres of diesel is consumed and tonnes of carbon is emitted every year to power mobile telecom towers across the country.

In its consultation paper, TRAI has suggested that the use of renewable sources of energy such as solar and biomass, better network planning and sharing of infrastructure by operators could substantially reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. The regulator has also recommended a system of carbon credits for the telecom sector. TRAI has said that moving to renewable energy sources would not only benefit the environment but also generate millions of carbon credits that could offset operational costs on towers.

In August 2010, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) asked telecom companies to self-certify the emission levels of each of their towers. A fine of Rs 500,000 per tower would be levied if the radiation levels of the towers did not conform to the radiation limits prescribed by the International Commission on Non-ionising Radiation Protection.

Earlier, in July 2009, DoT had decided to offer financial support from the Universal Service Obligation Fund to tower companies using renewable energy sources to power their base stations in rural areas. DoT launched a scheme whereby Rs 5 million per installation would be given for mobile towers running on renewable energy. In a separate move, a panel was set up by the government in September 2010 to promote and push the use of renewable energy in the Indian telecom sector.

Conclusion 

Going forward, managing energy costs and switching to alternative sources of energy are going to be key thrust areas for the telecom industry. Though small beginnings have been made on this front, both the government and the industry need to work in conjunction and augment their efforts to ease the energy issues faced by the sector. Innovations, and research and development on the technology front will also play a significant role in the shift towards more efficient and cleaner energy usage.

 
 

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