The Indian telecom industry is one of the most competitive and fastest-growing markets globally. Growth in the telecom sector has helped drive economic growth and bridge the digital divide. A new knowledge-based economy is evolving in India with more impetus on data connectivity. Telecom infrastructure is being provisioned in every nook and corner of the country to further bridge the digital divide.
With the advent of 5G technology it is expected that there will be a significant rise in towers, small cells and base transceiver stations (BTSs). It is feared that it will result in accelerating green house gas (GHG) and carbon emissions, contributing to global warming. To reduce the adverse effect on the overall ecosystem by the telecom sector, steps must be taken towards ‘green telecom’, to lessen energy consumption and migrate towards renewable sources of energy to mitigate the impact of global warming.
Contribution to climate change
Climate change is the biggest challenge the world is facing today. This necessitates collective action by all countries to come together and discuss measures to curtail the GHG emissions in the atmosphere. All sectors like agriculture, industry, services sector, etc., have to take corrective steps to mitigate the effects of climate change for a balanced ecological system.
Telecom services have become an integral part of our lives, being central to communication, information and entertainment. Telecom towers play a pivotal role in this process. The operations of these towers require electricity on a continuous basis for interruption-free telecom services. The electricity comes mainly from the power grid. A majority of electricity comes from emission intensive thermal power plants. Moreover, when there are power cuts, the operations of these towers is supported by diesel generator (DG) sets and battery back-up. Both the grid energy and DG sets contribute to the emission of GHGs, thus increasing the carbon footprints. A Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report dated 2011 had estimated that telecom infrastructure contributed about 1 per cent of India’s carbon emission annually. The proportion may have risen given rapid expansion in telecom infrastructure in the last decade. In addition, the energy consumption through these towers entails a significant amount of operational expenditure to the telecom service providers. This necessitates move towards green telecom.
One of the significant contributors to the carbon footprint in the telecom sector is the use of diesel generators for backup power. Despite efforts to improve grid availability, a considerable portion of sites still relies on diesel generators, leading to higher emissions. To address this, many telecom companies have been exploring the adoption of green information and communication technologies (ICT), which involves using digital technologies to enhance efficiency and sustainability while reducing carbon emissions.
Green ICT refers to the application of ICT in ways that reduce the environmental impact of economic activities. It involves the use of digital technologies to improve the efficiency and sustainability of business operations, reduce carbon emissions, and promote the transition to a low-carbon economy. The Indian telecom sector plays host to 1.17 billion mobile users, garnering a tele-density of 84.46 per cent, 760,000 mobile towers (each tower on average houses 2-3 BTSs) and around 2.64 million BTSs, with optical fibre cable (OFC) rollout crossed approximately 3.73 km as of March 2023 which enables connectivity to 832 million broadband users along with mobile subscribers.
With improved availability of grid and grid expansion going to rural locations, a lot of progress has happened on the grid availability. Despite these efforts, 35-40 per cent of sites are still dependent on DGs as a source of backup. However, telcos have made efforts and conducted trials to make solar power solutions economically viable.
In the past, telcos had been utilising 4-5 KW of solar power per site which has now increased to 10 KW per site because of the number of additional BTSs/eNodeBs of 4G/5G. However, deploying solar power and related energy storage solutions is a capex-heavy exercise. It also depends on where this solution is being deployed. Because if we have to deploy this solution in rural areas, then the cost will go up because of logistic of all these goods and the infrastructure, and we have to create a partner ecosystem to make it happen in the rural which is an expensive affair compared to putting up a similar solution in the urban areas.
Keeping in tune with global focus on climate change, it was imperative to undertake measures that would facilitate us in safeguarding our environmental resources while maintaining steadfast progress in technological advancements. Green telecom is the inceptive initiative which, in my view, helps us resolve this predicament of technology and environment. However, telecom being a critical industry, it is imperative for us to take cognisance of the carbon footprint that the industry has. The telecom/ICT industry accounts for a carbon footprint of 1.43 per cent. For India, the telecom industry contributes close to 9 per cent of carbon footprint, which may appear comparatively low vis-à-vis other industrial sectors, but it is pertinent to understand that even such a contribution needs to be minimised.
Going green has become a necessity for telecom operators with energy cost becoming as large as approximately 30 per cent of the OPEX. With increase in the price of diesel and environmental concern about GHG emissions, the government authorities are fast making provisions for non-conventional energy, solar & wind power in both remote off grid sites as well as grid sites. Telecom operators face pressure to build out infrastructure that supports high-speed communications, all with environmental and sustainability concerns in mind. While many operators have pledged to support climate initiatives, the reality is some sustainability strategies are unattainable without additional changes.
Global status – Green/renewable energy
- Renewable energy use increased 3 per cent in 2020 as demand for all other fuels declined. The primary driver was an almost 7 per cent growth in electricity generation from renewable sources.
- Bioenergy use in industry grew 3 per cent, but was largely offset by a decline in biofuels as lower oil demand also reduced the use of blended biofuels.
- China alone should account for almost half of the global increase in renewable electricity in 2021, followed by the US, the European Union and India.
- Renewable electricity generation in 2021 is set to expand by more than 8 per cent to reach at 300 TWh, the fastest year-on-year growth since the 1970s. Solar PV and wind are set to contribute two-thirds of renewables growth.
- Wind is set for the largest increase in renewable generation, growing by 275 TWh, or almost 17 per cent, which is significantly greater than 2020 levels.
Green telecom movement
The green telecom movement gaining traction in India and other countries is a positive sign for the telecommunications industry and the environment. As this movement gains momentum, it signifies a commitment from the industry to address its carbon footprint and contribute to environmental sustainability. Several factors contribute to the rising popularity of the green telecom movement:
With increased global awareness of climate change and its potential consequences, businesses and industries, including telecom, are under increasing pressure to adopt sustainable practices and reduce their carbon emissions.
Embracing green practices, such as using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, can lead to significant cost savings in the long run. By reducing reliance on traditional energy sources like diesel generators, telecom companies can lower their operational expenses.
Many governments worldwide are offering incentives and favourable policies to encourage businesses to adopt green technologies and practices. These incentives can further motivate telecom operators to invest in sustainable solutions.
Consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of the products and services they use. Telecom companies that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability may gain a competitive edge and attract environmentally conscious customers.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
Many telecom operators view sustainability initiatives as part of their CSR efforts. By actively participating in green practices, they can enhance their reputation and contribute positively to society.
Advancements in renewable energy technologies, energy storage solutions, and energy-efficient network equipment have made it more feasible for telecom companies to transition to green practices. As the green telecom movement gains high, it is crucial for the industry to sustain its commitment to environmentally friendly practices and continue seeking innovative solutions to reduce its carbon footprint. Collaborative efforts among telecom operators, infrastructure providers, technology providers, and governments are essential to achieve significant progress in this area. By adopting green information and communication technologies, investing in renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and fostering responsible waste management, the telecom industry can be a driving force in building a sustainable and eco-friendly future while maintaining its position as a critical and essential sector of the economy.
Indeed, the telecommunications industry in India, as in many other countries, faces the challenge of balancing technological advancements and environmental sustainability. The sector has experienced tremendous growth, with a vast consumer base and an expanding network infrastructure. However, this growth has also led to significant energy consumption and carbon emissions, making it essential for the industry to adopt green practices to mitigate its impact on the environment.
Green business model for telecommunications
Energy costs for telecom operators around the world are already high: they accounted, on average, for around 5 per cent of operating expenditures. In emerging markets, where low grid coverage often means operators must supply their own power with a generator set, energy can account for as much as 7 per cent of expenditures. And costs look set to rise further, putting greater pressure on margins at a time when the industry can scarcely handle any additional financial burden. Telecom towers consume 65-70 per cent of energy from the operations of telecom networks. To reduce the impact on environment, there is an urgent need to move to renewable sources of energy for telecom towers, i.e., green telecom towers for energy saving.
India was ranked fourth in wind power, fifth in solar power, and fourth in renewable power installed capacity, as of 2020. As per the Central Electricity Authority report, the total installed capacity increased by compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.92 per cent between the financial years 2016-22.
This growing energy challenge is, in large measure, a result of the exponential growth in traffic that new 5G services are likely to deliver. Although the 5G-new-radio standard is more energy efficient per gigabyte than are the 4G standards, the proposed 5G use cases and new spectrum bands will require many more mobile sites, outstripping potential energy efficiencies. Each 5G site will need two to three times more power than the 4G-equivalent site, according to industry estimates. At the same time, as more services are provided at the edge, the number of data centers will need to rise. By our calculations, these already account for 5 to 10 per cent of a telecom operator’s energy costs.
The common cardinality in any network generation will always remain with respect to energy consumption. The 5G requires unprecedented network infra densification for rollout and its successors and ancillaries are no different. Wi-Fi 7, internet of things (IoT), and 6G will require large scale data orchestration software layers – which are purported to be linked through artificial intelligence (AI) operated network planes. While infrastructure requirements may be done away with use of low power BTS (LPBTS), the inculcation of open radio access networks (O-RAN), centralised RAN (C-RAN), and data orchestration layers within the next gen digital ecosystem will warrant green measures to do away with extensive power consumption.
The network generations have culminated till the fifth iteration of the mobile network generation. However, as we move up and scale to the next generations such as 6G, the key predicament that remains to be tackled is energy efficiency. With regard to having an energy efficient telecom sector which is able to successfully minimise its carbon footprint, it is imperative that the collective synergies of generation networks, energy storage, and green telecommunications is coalesced into a business model. Operators’ energy costs keep rising, but efficiency measures and organisational change can lower them by 15 to 20 per cent in a year, benefiting company profits and the environment. It is thereby recommended that the business model include the following components:
- Emphasis on energy storage: Optimising of tele-infra and network elements vide the use of extensive energy storage systems (ESS) by proliferation of battery manufacturing and overall emphasis on reduction of diesel usage for powering tower sites.
- Mandates towards energy as a service (EaaS): Establishment and exclusive use of renewable energy service companies (RESCOs) for powering telecom infrastructure using renewable energy technology (RETs) should be mandated and adopted seamlessly across the value telecom value chain.
- Scaling up of battery manufacturing: Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries provide for a greener alternative to its counterpart VLRA batteries and a collective shift towards exclusive utilisation of Li-ion batteries in telecom networks has the potential to contribute towards 30 per cent reduction in OPEX.
Barriers to renewable energy implementation
There are significant barriers to the implementation of renewable energy for green telecom that need to be addressed.
- Many renewable energy technologies remain expensive on account of higher capital costs, compared to conventional energy supplies for bulk energy supply to urban areas or major industries.
- Implementation of renewable energy technologies needs significant initial investment and may need support for relatively long periods before reaching profitability.
- There is still a lot to be done for consumer awareness of the benefits and opportunities of renewable energy.
Financial, legal, regulatory, and organisational barriers need to be overcome in order to implement renewable energy technologies and develop markets in India.
Current status of implementation of green telecommunication in India
India has been making efforts to promote green telecommunications in recent years. The government, in collaboration with telecom service providers (TSPs)/Infra providers (IPs), has initiated various measures to reduce the carbon footprint of the telecommunication sector. Here are some key developments and initiatives:
Renewable energy integration
Telecom companies have been encouraged to shift from traditional sources of energy to renewable sources. Many companies have started installing solar panels, wind turbines, and fuel cells to power their cell towers and other infrastructure. This reduces dependence on fossil fuels and lowers carbon emissions. Telecom infrastructure providers continuously strive to reduce diesel consumption at sites. Overall, approximately 30 per cent of the sites are diesel-free sites. The number of diesel-free sites has gone up to 223,904 of March 2023, as compared to 90,911 sites as of December 2016. As a result, there are about 570 million litres saving of diesel, annually.
Use of Lithium-Ion Batteries for Powering Sites
Telecom companies are using Li-ion batteries as these batteries deliver high power density, deep cycling capability and a service life much longer than that of lead acid batteries. Li-ion batteries are maintenance-free, recharge very quickly and ultimately deliver the lowest total cost of ownership.
Green sites project was conceived to run telecom network operations without using diesel as power backup, by instead running the network on a more environment-friendly advanced battery bank solution, without compromising on the network uptime.
Shut AC initiative
The initative sought to replace air conditioners with free cooling units, which consume less energy and are specifically designed to control the internal environment of cell site enclosures.
Efficient battery deployment
Efficienct battery deployment by using the combo solution, the NCU, turbo solutions, variable speed diesel generator sets and micro cooling solutions that target sites with temperature-sensitive equipment and cool them separately.
The government has introduced regulations for the proper disposal and recycling of electronic waste generated by the telecommunication sector. Telecom operators are required to adhere to these guidelines and ensure responsible e-waste management.
Other measures adopted by infrastructure providers on energy management are:
- Conversion of indoor sites to outdoor sites. At present about 60 per cent of sites are converted to outdoor, needing less energy.
- Installed latest products such as high efficiency rectifiers, variable ACDG kits and DCDG kits.
- State-of the-art remote monitoring systems and big data analytics into their system.
- Spreading awareness regarding importance of green telecom
- Upskilling and training of employees to implement green initiatives in the organisation.
With the proliferation of broadband and mobile devices, there has been significant growth in the number of telecom towers and associated electronics at the base stations. It is expected that the 5G technologies-based mobile network will be rolled out and expanded quickly in India. This will increase the number of towers and small cells significantly. To reduce the impact on environment, it is necessary to ensure a green telecom sector. The government should push the adoption of the latest technologies to reduce power requirement. Moreover, the government should accelerate the pace of the transition towards sources of green energy. This will in-turn reduce the GHGs and carbon emissions, thus helping in maintaining the ecological balance.