The energy needs of the telecom sector have grown significantly over the past few years with the deployment of a large number of mobile towers and increased uptake of data services. This has not only led to a considerable cost increase for tower companies, but has severely impacted the environment as well.
Energy management has thus emerged as a key focus area for the telecom industry, especially in rural locations where around 70 per cent of the network’s energy needs are met through non-grid power. Moreover, given the fact that the next wave of demand for high speed data services is likely to come from rural areas, owing to government initiatives such as Digital India and BharatNet, it has become imperative for telecom tower companies to optimise their energy usage in these regions.
A two-pronged approach needs to be adopted for managing energy consumption in rural areas. First, efforts must be made to reduce power consumption to the extent possible. Second, the share of clean energy sources in powering telecom sites should be increased.
Reducing energy usage
The energy requirements of a given site depend primarily on the nature of active equipment deployed. If the latter is sensitive to the environment and power fluctuations, an optimal support system has to be provided, which itself consumes a lot of power. According to the Indian Energy Security Scenarios 2047, a tool developed by the government to assess potential energy scenarios, base transceiver stations (BTSs) consume the maximum power at tower sites. BTS configurations vary with sites, depending on the number of subscribers, area of coverage, data traffic and teledensity. A 2/2/2 configuration BTS that requires about 1.3 kW of power supply is generally used in rural areas.
At indoor sites, where the equipment is more sensitive, there is often a greater need to ensure appropriate climatic conditions through air-conditioning for the equipment to operate efficiently. Assuming the addition of 1.5 tonne ACs, the total power requirement thus increases to 3-4.7 kW, considerably increasing the overall cost of operating a rural tower site.
One way to reduce energy consumption in this regard is through the adoption of innovative cooling methods such as fan coil unit cooling, DC air-conditioning and rack cooling, which consume less power than traditional air-conditioning. In addition to these, free cooling units and natural cooling units can be deployed, which reduce the AC running hours on the sites whenever the temperature of the surrounding environment (ambient temperature) is lower than the shelter temperature.
Substantial energy savings can also be achieved by replacing indoor BTSs with outdoor BTSs. Several low power outdoor mountable BTSs, specifically customised for rural areas, are available in the market where air-conditioning is not required.
Energy management has thus emerged as a key focus area for the telecom industry, especially in rural locations where around 70 per cent of the network’s energy needs are met through non-grid power.
India’s current rural electrification rate stands at an abysmal level of around 55 per cent. Even in the case of electrified villages, telecom sites receive grid power for less than 12 hours per day on an average. The absence of uninterrupted grid power at the majority of rural sites has forced companies to rely on non-grid sources, the most common being diesel gensets. Consequently, diesel costs make up a significant part of the overall opex of a tower site.
In addition to cost implications, the use of diesel has had serious ecological implications as well. The annual carbon dioxide emission on account of diesel use at telecom tower sites is estimated to be around 10 million tonnes. The telecom industry thus contributes to around 1 per cent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions, which is much higher than the global standard of 0.7 per cent.
Diesel pilferage is another major challenge in rural areas. According to industry estimates, telecom tower companies lose around Rs 22 billion every year on account of diesel theft, which further adds to the overall costs.
The need to reduce opex as well as the carbon footprint has led telecom operators and tower companies to experiment with alternative power sources. Renewable energy can help tower companies reduce emissions, energy costs as well as diesel logistics costs.
Solar power is currently the most commercialised technology among the renewable energy technologies used for powering towers. It is best suited for rural areas, which offer vast expanses of land for panel installation. In addition, with the decline in panel prices in recent years, solar is becoming a more financially feasible option apart from being the most easily deployable among renewables.
Another popular renewable energy source is biomass, which is an economical and commercially viable solution for rural sites with an average load of over 5 kW and grid outages of more than eight hours. The use of jatropha oil, a biofuel available in sufficient quantities in rural areas, for powering telecom sites is also currently being tested. Some sites are also using fuel cells and wind energy for meeting the electricity needs.
On the policy front, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), through a directive issued in January 2012, mandated stringent targets for implementing green technologies in the telecom sector. As per the directive, 50 per cent of rural sites had to be powered by renewable energy sources by 2015and deployments needed to go up to 75 per cent in rural areas by 2020. While the intent behind these guidelines was much appreciated, the guidelines were considered too ambitious, almost unrealistic, given the prevailing conditions in the industry. Following a series of representations by the tower industry, DoT has now referred the matter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for review.
Key challenges in energy management
There are multiple challenges in implementing energy management solutions at rural sites. First, the population clusters are scattered in rural and remote areas. Hence, tower companies have to judiciously decide on the optimal energy management strategy in order to ensure adequate capacity and coverage. Second, the tower companies are not experts in energy technologies. Thus, they depend on the expertise of external solution providers. Third, each telecom site is different in terms of configuration, number of BTSs, load requirement, grid power availability and prevailing weather conditions. Therefore, companies need to try different permutations and combinations before arriving at the best solution for a particular site. Another challenge is the large-scale capex requirement for deploying renewable energy solutions at a time when companies are struggling to meet even their operational expenditure. In addition, most renewable energy sources need to be accompanied by appropriate storage technologies, which further adds to the capex.
The telecom sector is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace, with rural areas providing a larger share of opportunities. However, until the rural electrification process is complete, the sector’s dependence on off-grid power such as through diesel will only increase.
Hence, it is imperative that tower companies use alternative energy solutions at tower sites, through which significant power efficiency can be achieved. Use of advanced cooling solutions and energy efficient equipment, which can operate in a non-air-conditioned environment, can help achieve considerable energy savings.
Further, since the capacity requirement in rural areas is much less than that of urban areas, small capacity and low power systems running on non-conventional energy sources should be installed. This seems feasible in the present times because the bulk of the investments in rural networks are yet to be made and distributed systems with low power requirements can easily be deployed on a mass scale. The government, on its part, will have to look for ways to provide tower companies with financial aid in the form of incentives like tax holidays or accelerated depreciation to make up for the additional capex required for deploying renewable energy solutions.