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Power Prudence: Renewables to drive future telecom infrastructure operations

March 01, 2012

The increased dependence on diesel generators (DGs) for powering telecom infrastructure has not just resulted in soaring energy costs, but has also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. Energy costs account for 35 per cent of the total operating costs incurred by telecom operators. This is primarily due to low grid power availability and high dependence on DGs for meeting their energy needs. Power outages range from 4 to 20 hours a day, depending on where the site is operating. As per industry estimates, tower companies spend more than Rs 100 billion annually on diesel for their backup generators.

At present, almost 60 per cent of the total power requirement for telecom towers in rural areas is met by captive DGs and the remaining is met through grid electricity. Diesel consumption at these tower sites results in the emission of around 5 million tonnes of CO2 annually and grid electricity consumption results in the emission of 8 million tonnes of CO2 per annum.

In the coming years, rural areas are expected to drive telecom growth in India. As grid power supply is already very low in these regions, the towers would be dependent on DGs for uninterrupted power supply. The consumption of diesel would also increase as operators expand their networks, and introduce 3G and broadband wireless access services.

In this scenario, energy costs have emerged as one of the biggest concerns for tower companies. Given the rising concern regarding energy conservation and power utilisation within the sector, telecom operators, infrastructure providers and vendors are focusing on alternative sources of energy as well as making existing networks more energy efficient.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) consultation paper, “Approach Towards Green Telecommunication”, is a positive step in this regard. Moreover, the draft National Telecom Policy lays emphasis on encouraging the adoption of a green policy and the use of renewable energy sources.

Energy efficient solutions

Telecom companies and infrastructure providers have adopted several solutions to lower their energy costs as well as enhance infrastructure efficiency. For instance, the capacity of base transceiver stations (BTSs) is being increased to optimise tower density. Another initiative includes the adoption of outdoor BTSs, which have a longer life as compared to indoor BTSs and can perform in extreme climatic conditions. Further, the use of an outdoor BTS enables a reduction of about 25 per cent in power and fuel costs as against indoor BTSs. New-generation equipment with better temperature tolerance allows for the conversion of indoor BTSs, kept in air-conditioned shelters, to outdoor BTSs.

Almost 50 per cent of the energy consumed at a mobile base station is used to provide air conditioning to cool shelters that house equipment. This calls for energy efficient shelters that are designed to work in temperatures of up to 55 °C without the need for air conditioning. Today, companies use green shelters with better insulation and thus lower the need for  air conditioning. Similarly, they also use free cooling units, which utilise ambient temperature to cool down equipment and reduce dependence on air conditioning.

Other measures include painting the exterior of base stations white in order to deflect the sun; switching off the base stations when the load is less; and sharing towers, shelter cabinets, power supply unit, air-conditioning units and alarm systems. Telecom sites today have advanced facilities like automatic shutdown of inactive transceivers, which saves energy when there is no activity on the network. Also, substituting conventional DGs with DC sets removes the inefficiencies of converting power from AC to DC and hence, reduces overall fuel consumption.

Renewable energy solutions

Apart from focusing on energy efficiency, tower companies are also exploring alternative energy options to meet their power requirements. Renewable energy helps reduce not only diesel costs but also the sector’s carbon footprint.

Solar has emerged as the most preferred renewable energy technology for tower companies, resulting in significant energy savings. A tower powered by solar energy is easier to maintain and provides value for 30-40 years. Wind turbine energy is another renewable source being deployed in areas with high wind velocities. Operators are also adopting solar-wind hybrid solutions that help lower fossil fuel consumption by up to 80 per cent.

Biofuels from agricultural waste and residues are also being used to power existing DGs. Fuel cells can generate power ranging from 1 watt to several megawatts, and can replace batteries and DGs in urban areas. Other energy alternatives include fuel saver catalysts, compressed natural gas and energy storage platforms.

However, the high investment costs for deployment of renewable energy solutions is a major concern. For instance, a solar photovoltaic panel can cost as much as Rs 350,000 per kW. The adoption and

successful implementation of these technologies require support from all sections of the industry. Technology providers must innovate and localise, operators must invest in the development of these solutions and the regulator must provide incentives in the form of tax holidays, accelerated depreciation and targeted subsidies.

Industry initiatives

Recognising the need to reduce carbon emissions and limit the mounting energy costs, telecom operators and infrastructure providers, along with vendors, have adopted several measures to develop energy-efficient networks.

For instance, Bharti Airtel has launched the concept of green shelters at around 7,000 sites to reduce energy consumption. Further, the operator 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 deployed more than 2,000 renewable energy sites. This initiative is expected to result in annual savings of around Rs 800 million and an estimated reduction of 58,170 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Idea Cellular has been using outdoor BTSs since 2007. Further, several of the company’s telecom sites in rural areas are powered by biodiesel, which is obtained from used cooking oils. Idea has also partnered with Chennai-based Gemini Communications to explore solar hybrid systems for running BTSs in parts of rural Bihar. So far, these systems have been commissioned at 20 tower sites and are expected to increase to 500 sites by June 2012. Further, Idea is a part of the Aditya Birla Group’s fuel cell pilot project, which aims at using hydrogen to power mobile base stations.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is also involved in a pilot project for setting up 10 kW solar plants at 14 sites and wind power projects at six sites funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Meanwhile, Uninor has conducted a pilot test for deploying free cooling units at about 7,500 sites to reduce energy consumption by 30 per cent. The operator is also exploring the concept of underground heat exchangers, which reduce a site’s power requirement by 25 kW-30 kW per day. Reliance Communications (RCOM) has installed windmills at a few of its tower sites in West Bengal. RCOM is also powering some of its cell sites using solar energy. Further, it has deployed biofuel plants to run its telecom networks in several rural areas.

GTL Infrastructure is already in the process of shifting from diesel to solar and other alternative sources of energy, and plans to become an all-green infrastructure provider by 2013. Viom Networks has also identified several high energy consumption sites and is considering the use of piped natural gas, free cooling units and fuel catalysts to reduce diesel consumption. The initiatives taken by Indus Towers include the development of a solar hybrid solution, an outdoor site-based solution, a fuel catalyst project and a free cooling unit.

Government initiatives

Recently, the Department of Telecommunications accepted TRAI’s recommendations on green telecom. Accordingly, it has issued directives to telecom operators which require that at least 50 per cent of rural towers and 20 per cent of urban towers be powered by hybrid energy sources (renewable and grid) by 2015. Further, all telecom products, equipment and services in the telecom network should be certified “Green Passport”  by 2015. As per the directive, service providers are required to declare the carbon footprint of their network operations to TRAI.

Telecom companies, however, are not willing to invest in the infrastructure required for generating green power and prefer to purchase green power from private companies instead. To this end, the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) is planning to invite proposals from non-governmental organisations and private green power companies to generate and supply off-grid power to telecom towers in the country. Further, TAIPA has proposed the renewable energy service company (RESCO) off-grid distribution model, where RESCOs can set up renewable energy-based power plants near the telecom towers and sell power to the telecom companies at a predetermined cost.

The model is viable as it not only  meets the increasing energy demands of the tower industry, but also helps in addressing the cost economics by improving the scale of supply. For instance, several plants that provide renewable energy are uneconomical, unless adequately deployed. With a large anchor demand for energy from just one user,  telecom infrastructure operators, several off-grid distributed solar and other renewable energy projects can achieve scale and become viable.

Conclusion

Going forward, the use of alternative energy sources to power telecom infrastructure would help in easing the energy issues faced by the sector. Besides reducing the operators’ operational expenditure in the long run, it will also result in reducing the sector’s carbon footprint. While modest efforts have been initiated in this direction by the industry as well as the government, there is still a long way to go. Until renewable energy sources become an affordable option, operators and infrastructure providers will continue to focus on energy savings by deploying efficient equipment and infrastructure.

 
 

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