Amongst the many challenges that tower infrastructure providers face, ensuring 24×7 power supply at tower sites remains one of the biggest. Over the years, managing energy needs and the associated costs has become a key focus area for tower companies. The industry seems to be on the right track as it is working towards minimising diesel consumption by exploring alternative and cost-efficient technologies and adopting high efficiency storage solutions. Tower companies are also partnering with specialised operations and maintenance (O&M) and data analytics companies to manage their energy needs and consumption. Industry experts talk about key energy management strategies and emerging trends in this space…
Energy management strategies
Tower companies today use multiple sources such as grid power, solar energy, diesel generators or energy storage solutions to power their towers. Energy cost optimisation, however, remains the biggest challenge. Indus Towers and the industry as a whole have undertaken some measures as a result. First, a big chunk of Indus’s sites have been converted from indoor to outdoor, which has brought down the use of air conditioning significantly. This allows us to use two to three hours of additional storage solutions such as battery bank, which in turn reduces the cost of diesel. In the past six to seven years, we have managed to reduce our diesel consumption by 50 per cent despite the massive growth in network year on year. Second, we have an ongoing initiative under which we aim to convert all our sites into green sites. Technically, we classify a site as “green” when it consumes less than 100 litres of diesel in a quarter. At Indus, we have 65,000-plus sites that we call green, which account for more than 50 per cent of our network. Several of our sites also operate on solar energy. However, solar will become viable only when it can be offered at a lower cost than utility power. The challenges will dissipate once solar achieves a certain size and scale. But this will take time, definitely beyond 12-18 months.
At Indus, we have committed to making ourselves diesel-free by 2021. It is indeed a big target to achieve given the current scheme of things, wherein the company consumes 250 million litres of diesel. But we are optimistic that improving EB availability/grid power availability will make our case stronger.
Over the next few years, remote site monitoring will become a big thing, when we may have 100 per cent of towers with real-time accessibility of data. Some action still needs to be taken to deploy artificial intelligence tools, which predict the cost of energy on a real-time basis. This will also help us in bringing down costs significantly.
“We have committed to making ourselves diesel-free by 2021. It is a big target, but we are optimistic about it.” Rajesh Bansal
Achieving the right hybridisation
Hybridisation has to do with the choice of technology that delivers the best outcome. It is not always solar or lead acid battery or lithium battery. Instead, wherever possible, whenever possible, we should use a mix of technologies. It is also not about capex. The moment we start looking at how much capex it involves, we lose sight of the benefit of hybridisation. The solution to correct hybridisation is not dependent solely on capex or technology. Instead, the solution should be such that it helps customers achieve opex savings. The industry needs to change the technology- and capex-oriented mindset towards an opex-based framework.
Business models, technology, processes and tools are the other components that need a relook. On the technology front, clearly, lithium and batteries for storage are promising, despite the cost challenge. The moment you have a large-scale deployment, costs will be favourably impacted. It will be further favourably impacted if you superimpose it on the opex model on lithium and battery.
The second component is processes. If you look at pure technology, you could have a remote management system that is coupled to the more sophisticated network operations centre (NOC) in the world, but if you don’t wrap it around robust processes that convert intelligence into meaningful activities, you are unlikely to benefit. So, unless people at the NOC level, the management level and the field level have the necessary software, gadgets, means and mechanics by which they can use that information and act on it swiftly, adequately, and robustly, you are unlikely to be able to gain.
“The industry needs to change the technology and capexoriented mindset towards an opex-based framework.” Sharat Chandra
Case for energy storage
The power requirements at our sites are constantly increasing. Indoor-to-outdoor conversion has always been our priority and more than 70 per cent of our sites are outdoor deployments. So thankfully air conditioning energy is not a big problem for us. A key cost, however, is that of energy storage. Take the case of a VRLA battery, say, a 300 Ah VRLA battery. Ideally, it is capable of storing 15 kWh of energy but because of the technology, we may not be able to discharge it below a depth of 80 per cent. Typically, the life in terms of duty cycles can be 600 to 800 cycles for a VRLA battery. Unfortunately, in India, grid power availability or outages do not have a standard pattern. So, there are strong chances that when there is a sudden outage, the battery is not fully charged. This impacts its life, which in turn adds to the incremental cost for an infrastructure provider. In the past two to three years, lithium-ion batteries have emerged as very promising devices for energy storage; however, the price points are still not really coming down to attractive levels.
“Lithium-ion batteries are promising devices for energy storage, but the price points have not reduced enough.” Tushar Kapadia
Role of O&M companies
Cost is the biggest challenge today. This has primarily risen as telecommunication has, over the past 17-18 years, grown at a disproportionate rate vis-à-vis electricity. And wherever there is disproportionate growth, the cost becomes important. Till a few years back, operators were not focusing as much on opex reduction as has been the case in the past three to five years. Also, it is important to realise that energy cost is not just about technology. It is also about manpower management and that is where we as an O&M company or energy company can step in. Slowly, O&M and energy management are going to converge. A tower O&M company does various things. It reduces the points of contact for a tower company or telecom company because the same company can do O&M as well as energy management.
Typically, one technician of ours, who is a ground-level executive, takes care of 14 or 15 sites on an average. It is not only because of the work he has to do on the sites but also because of the response time required by the telecom companies. If he takes care of 40 sites, he will probably not be able to respond as fast. Another fact is that a lot of time is lost moving from one site to an other. Further, the capex is borne by us and we provide it at a fixed cost. The cost is determined depending on the load that is available on the site, and the availability of grid power, if it is there.
Going forward, I foresee consolidation amongst O&M service providers and energy companies. The use of remote monitoring and solarisation is actually giving remote monitoring capability to O&M companies too. We all have our own remote monitoring centres today.
“It is important to realise that energy cost is not just about technology. It is also about manpower management.” Ajit Shankar