With a vision to create a zero harm en­vi­­ronment and reduce the de­p­e­n­­­­dence on diesel by using innovative green energy solutions, the telecom infrastructure sector seems to have started a silent war against carbon emission and diesel usage.

Amongst the various renewable energy sources, solar power is currently the most commercialised technology used for powering telecom towers. In addition, it is best suited for rural areas that offer large ex­panses of land for panel installations. Solar panels can also be deployed easily in hilly terrains. With the significant decline in panel prices and maintenance costs, solar is emerging as an affordable source of power, which can reduce the dependence on grids.

Biofuels have also become a popular renewable source to power telecom towers. These contain no sulphur or aromatics, and the use of biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine substantially reduces the emission of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Moreover, biodiesel has a positive energy balance. It can be manufactured using the existing industrial production capacity in rural sites.

Globally, wind energy is also gaining traction as a means to fully utilise existing tower site space and infrastructure. A lightweight wind turbine can be integrated into the existing infrastructure in coastal areas, which can reduce up to 50 per cent of diesel consumption at remote rural sites and up to 100 per cent at repeater sites. Thus, it is a financially viable option to install small wind turbines, along with top-up batteries, in such areas. Telecom operators such as MTC Namibia and Vodacom South Africa are using on-site wind turbines to power their telecom towers.

Industry initiatives and the progress so far

The Indian telecom industry has taken several initiatives to contribute towards the common goal of reducing carbon emissions by cutting energy consumption by 25-30 per cent. Indus Towers has deployed solar solutions at more than 1,000 cell sites to reduce its carbon footprint. The company is also implementing solar cooling units (SCUs) and simple power panels at its sites. An SCU is a smart solution that is not dependent on power from the grid, battery or diesel and is charged with solar energy. It is also a zero-cost solution as it uses natural air as a coolant. Further, the company has run a pilot for a fuel cell system, Proton Exchan­ge Membrane Fuel Cell, at a site in Delhi. The fuel used in the system was a mixture of methanol and water and helped in generating electrical power to replace power from diesel generator sets.

Meanwhile, Bharti Infratel operates around 3,000 solar-powered sites across the network, as of June 30, 2017. It is currently working towards scaling up solar installations across the network. The company is also partnering with renewable en­er­gy service companies (RESCOs) to power its towers through renewable energy, along with community power development in rural areas.

ATC India is setting up captive hybrid solar systems at sites that have high diesel consumption. The initial focus is on off-grid towers with higher diesel usage. Currently, the company has more than 3 MW of installed solar capacity across states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. It is also developing a zero-power cooling solution for equipment shelters using ambient wind flow.

On the operator front, Bharat San­char Nigam Limited (BSNL) has partnered with Vi­haan Networks Limited (VNL) to deploy 1,893 sites across remotely located villages in Arunachal Pradesh. These towers will be eco-friendly as they will be fuelled by solar po­wer. The installation is part of Phase I of the government’s Com­prehensive Telecom Development Plan for the north-eastern reg­ion (comprising eight states). App­ro­ved by the Union cabinet in September 2014, the project envisages providing mo­bile coverage in 8,621 unconnected villages and seam­less coverage along national highways in the north-eastern re­gion by deploying 6,673 towers. Under Phase I, which is to be executed by BSNL, 2,817 sites are to be installed to cover 4,118 remotely located villages and tough terrains across Aruna­chal Pradesh and two districts of Assam. Earlier, BSNL had partnered with VNL for the government’s connectivity project in Naxal-affected areas. The project involved the installation and maintenance of 2,199 mobile towers in Naxal-affected states. As part of this project, VNL had installed around 1,315 solar empanelled towers in the left wing extremism-affected areas region in 2016.

Over the past five years, Bharti Airtel has set up 17 rooftop solar plants at its switching centres, with a total generation capacity of 1 MWp. In 2016-17, it ins­ta­ll­ed rooftop solar plants aggregating 193 kWp at three locations. Further, it has entered into green power wheeling agreements for the purchase of green energy through open access. So far, around 88 MUs of power have been contracted from renewable sources.

Idea Cellular, in association with the United States Trade Development Agen­cy, has conducted trials of solar hybrid methanol-based fuel cell systems to power telecom towers. Five such sites have been commissioned so far. It has also explored the off-site solar deployment route, based on power purchase agreements (PPAs), under the open access scheme. A total of 7.5 MW of renewable power has been contracted by the operator in various circles so far and more such discussions are under way. Further, as part of its on-site solar implementation project, Idea has installed a 25 kW solar plant on the roof of Idea’s mobile switching centre in Delhi to reduce the power being drawn from the grid or the load on the diesel generator. Further, exclusive solar solutions have been deployed at 1,200 sites that have poor grid or no grid connectivity, with an average solar capacity of 4.5 kW per site. The cu­mulative solar generating capacity dep­loyed under this scheme is about 5.5 MW.

An appropriate regulatory and policy impetus can help the telecom tower industry effectively manage its energy requirements without adding to the country’s carbon footprint

At Vodafone India, a small but growing number of base stations are using renewable energy, mainly solar and wind power.

Progress on RESCOs

In 2012, the telecom industry had opted for the RESCO model, which involved setting up renewable energy plants. These plants can be used by for telecom operators and to­wer companies willing to outsource the energy component at their network sites. A RESCO invests in power generation and sells the power under a defined PPA. With enough scale built up through consolidation, RESCOs can offer a competitive PPA rate. Discussions were held with around 70 applicants for request for proposal invitations, but only two companies were finally engaged as RESCOS for a pilot project involving the greening of about 1,100 tower sites. Moreover, challenges with regard to scalability, financial viability and the non-bankable business model deterred the adoption of the RESCO framework. However, it is pertinent to highlight that the telecom sector can be one of the potential consumers of RESCOs, which can significantly lower diesel consumption at telecom tower sites.

Policy push for green telecommunications

On the policy front, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), through a directive issued in January 2012, had set stringent targets for implementing green technologies in the telecom sector. Although the green telecom policy initiative was welcomed by all industry stakeholders, the targets were deemed to be too ambitious given the financial stress and technological impediments faced by the telecom sector. Consequently, in March 2016, after a series of deliberations within the telecom tower industry, DoT referred the matter to the Telecom Regulatory Au­thority of India for a policy review. The DoT-led interministerial group had suggested that the directives issued four years ago needed significant recalibration given the launch of new cost-efficient energy solutions and advances in battery technologies for mobile networks.

Challenges and the way forward

Although adopting green technology has emerged as one of the popular policy themes in the Indian telecom industry over the past few years, the stressed financial position of operators propelled by falling ARPUs and declining revenues has dissuaded them from making huge investments in setting up capacity to generate energy from renewable sources. At a time when most telecom operators and tower companies are struggling to meet even their operational expenditure, investing in appropriate storage technologies would further add to their capex.

The challenges notwithstanding, green is the way to go for the telecom tower industry. Going forward, an appropriate regulatory and policy impetus can help the telecom tower industry effectively manage its energy requirements without adding to the country’s carbon footprint.