Telecom tower companies in India have been prioritising energy consumption and cost management to enhance their energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint. In recent years, several initiatives have been taken by towercos and energy service companies (ESCOs) to optimise energy consumption at tower sites and better manage energy requirements. A look at the energy consumption and management trends in the Indian telecom infrastructure space, and the practices adopted by towercos to ensure energy efficiency…
Cost of energy
The energy cost, or the power and fuel cost at a tower site, accounts for about 40 per cent of the site’s total operational expenditure. As per industry estimates, a tower site typically consumes about 100 litres of diesel and 2,000-2,500 units of electricity per month on average. In terms of prices, diesel is a much more expensive option. The ratio of grid power to diesel prices stands at around about 1:3.
The use of diesel generator (DG) sets has decreased significantly over the past few years, with grid power emerging as the key source of power at tower sites. Towercos typically meet 70 per cent of their energy requirements through grid power, while 28-29 per cent is supported by DG sets and 1-2 per cent by renewable sources of energy, mainly solar. For instance, Tower Vision has around 98 per cent of its sites connected to the grid, while several sites use DG sets or batteries as back-up.
Attaining energy efficiency
During the past decade, the industry as a whole has been aiming to reduce diesel consumption at tower sites. To this end, the industry has managed to bring down diesel consumption by about 50 per cent despite a steady growth in the number of towers, and tenancies on each tower. This has been possible due to a marked improvement in the availability of grid power. Further, there has been an overall reduction in the telecom load. The load drawn by base transceiver stations (BTSs) has decreased as more energy efficient equipment has made its way into the sector, especially at tower sites. The newer equipment does not suffer from high loss of energy. Further, the conversion of AC voltage-based equipment to DC has resulted in the trimming of energy losses. The biggest factor driving down energy consumption at sites has been the elimination of air conditioning requirements. Air conditioners have been the biggest power consumers at tower sites, but most of the new BTSs now have the capacity to withstand higher temperatures. This has significantly reduced the air-cooling requirements.
The availability of grid power supply has also improved tremendously. There are some very progressive electricity boards, and they are not only working on improving the availability of power supply, but are extending facilities such as online generation of bills, acceptance of online payments and grievance redressal systems.
Over the years, the industry has managed to reduce its energy consumption from the earlier alarming levels. Consequently, the energy cost has also come down. But the battle is still half-won. In recent years, with large-scale sector consolidation, telcos have become extremely cost-conscious, which is exerting huge pressure on towercos to further reduce the operational cost of towers.
While the industry has achieved energy efficiencies, the cost of sourcing power has risen sharply. Unfortunately, the telecom sector does not get any tariff preference, even today. The towercos continue to operate on the commercial tariff structure, under which tariffs are pretty high. With data services coming in, the load on sites will only go up, thereby increasing energy costs.
Meanwhile, the cost of batteries has gone down. Several years ago, lead acid batteries were preferred over valve regulated lead–acid (VRLA) batteries due to their cost advantage. The cost of the latter was almost 1.5 times the cost of the former. This differential has reduced significantly in recent years. Interestingly, the cost of lithium batteries has also come down, but the supply chain remains a challenge.
The operations and management (O&M) methodologies at tower sites have also changed during the recent years with the use of internet of things (IoT) and automation. Since towercos have distributed operations, technology can help monitor them at each site. Today, various IoT devices are available that can generate site-specific data, which can be analysed at the edge to take actionable decisions regarding energy despatch or load redistribution. A key observation by industry stakeholders is that mobile data is often not enough to run technology applications. The industry will have to explore alternate bands/channels on the backhaul network itself. Another key issue is the lack of storage capabilities to store the huge quantum of data generated by sensors.
That said, the pandemic ushered in a new wave of technology adoption for towercos, as all the companies were forced to switch to remote operations in the wake of the lockdown. Automation can help in reducing manual intervention at sites.
Energy requirements of 5G
In the 5G era, towers will have higher power consumption and require more stable power solutions compared to 4G, which means their reliance on battery power will also increase. While efficiency will improve with the roll-out of 5G, the need to densify networks will result in higher power consumption. As a result, while the watt per bit will fall, the data bits will grow exponentially, increasing the overall consumption at a site. IP-1s need to gear up for this demand by strengthening their grid connections and storage capacity.
The way forward
Going forward, a lot of improvement is required at the last mile level, where the industry experiences a lot of breakdowns and interruptions. A site that has 16-18 hours of quality and consistent grid power supply is considered ideal, provided that AC usage and load (measured typically by the number of tenants on a site) on the site are low. So, for a 1.8-2 tenancy ratio, 16-18 hours of uninterrupted power supply should suffice.
Improving the energy storage ecosystem is also important, as towercos would like to use batteries to deal with smaller duration cuts, rather than resort to DG sets. VLRA batteries have gone mainstream and their adoption will continue to grow. Lithium batteries are also catching up and will see a sizeable increase in the next five years. However, charging batteries on site is cumbersome. For a 2 kW BTS, the company often has to install a 10 kW charging station on site.
In the medium term, switching to renewable sources of power will be important. Solar power, in particular, holds the potential to compete with the grid. The per unit cost of power sourced from a large solar plant is in fact one-third of the grid cost. At present, solar power is used at locations where a cluster of sites is available, as it is not economical for discreet sites. ESCOs typically set up power plants outside villages in rural areas, and cater to multiple towers through that plant.
Ultimately, in the very long run, fuel cells are likely to emerge as a formidable source of powering towers. They might even replace battery systems, but only in about 10-15 years. Any new technology will require a huge capex, with a recovery cycle of 5-10 years. Unfortunately, the sector’s dynamic situation and changing business scenarios have forced telcos to be very short-sighted. They are not willing to partner for a long-term period, and are looking for short-term solutions, which can only produce incremental results. For a significant cost reduction or a major breakthrough, capex infusion and long-term agreements will be fundamental.
Net, net, reducing energy costs will continue to be a key focus area for towercos. To ensure technology interventions or make technologies such as fuel cells a reality, more collaboration is required on ground.