The telecom industry accounts for around 1 per cent of the country’s total carbon emissions, higher than the global standard of 0.7 per cent. As per the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association, a single tower company’s energy consumption accounts for 25-30 per cent of its total operational expenditure. With the growing uptake of emerging technologies such as 5G, internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), the consumption will further increase to 40-45 per cent of the operational expenditure. This would increase the sector’s carbon footprint if it continues to meet its energy needs through traditional energy sources, particularly diesel generators (DGs).

To replace DGs, it is essential to ensure that quality grid electricity reaches every nook and corner of the country. Around 70 per cent of India’s total telecom towers are located in semi-urban and rural regions. These areas face power cuts of more than eight hours or have no grid electricity at all. In order to keep the towers functional 24×7 with minimum dependency on DGs, the industry needs to adopt clean and green technologies such as solar, wind, pico-hydro, biodiesel, natural gas, biofuel and fuel cells.

As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the use of renewables for powering network operations will increase significantly, to around 25 per cent by 2020. Solar energy deployment can help reduce the overall energy opex by 30-60 per cent. Meanwhile, a lightweight wind turbine in coastal areas can bring about a 50 per cent reduction in diesel consumption at remote rural sites and up to 100 per cent at repeater sites. In September 2018, the government rolled out the National Digital Communication Policy with the aim to promote and incentivise the deployment of solar and green energy to power telecom towers.

Trends in adoption

According to Indus Towers, it has converted a total of 67,544 sites into diesel-free green sites, as of May 2019, saving around 210 million litres of diesel since 2011-12. Indus has deployed simple power panels and solar cooling units at multiple sites in the past few years and intends to incorporate solar and wind technologies at its telecom towers as part of its long-term strategy. The company has been investing Rs 350 million in energy initiatives each year since 2014. In the past five years, the company has halved its diesel consumption and reduced 565 mt of carbon emissions. Indus has also set up a pilot site with a fuel cell system in Delhi, to replace a 15 kVA DG set. This is a proton exchange membrane system with a mixture of methanol and water. Indus is committed to becoming a diesel-free company by 2021.

In 2016, Bharti Infratel had set a target of deploying 22,000 green tower sites to reduce 150,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions, as part of its green energy and energy efficiency programme, “Green Towers P7”. As per the company, it has converted 43 per cent of its total network into a green network. As of June 2019, the company has 3,100 solar-powered sites and 45,000 green towers across its network on a consolidated basis. Further, Infratel has deployed energy efficiency systems such as integrated power management systems and variable speed direct current DGs. To improve the energy efficiency of towers, the company has also installed hybrid battery bank solutions in towers across the country.

ATC India has replaced DGs with captive hybrid solar panels, averaging 4.4 kWp per site, at more than 450 sites in eastern India. The total installed solar capacity has surpassed 2 MWp, with a significant electricity generation of around 2,500 MWh per year. ATC is also focusing on the development of a zero-power cooling solution using ambient wind flow for telecom shelters.

On the operator front, Bharti Airtel plans to reduce its carbon footprint by 70 per cent through solar and new battery technologies, under its network transformation initiative “Project Leap”. Besides, it has achieved a total of 1 MWp of solar rooftop energy capacity at major switching centre sites over the past five years, saving a total of 2,300 mt of carbon emissions. Further, the operator has reduced its diesel reliance with 60 per cent network sites on zero-footprint architecture without air conditioners.

Vodafone India has launched several initiatives to deploy green technology in the sector. The company aims to reduce its carbon gas emissions by 50 per cent and meet 100 per cent of its electricity requirements through renewable sources. Vodafone has been using an energy-efficient free-air cooling system in various centres and plans to introduce an adiabatic cooling system soon.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has installed the world’s largest solar-powered green mobile network with 1,836 mobile towers in 10 states funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund. Recently, BSNL released tenders to provide rural telecommunications services in the Northeast. To this end, the telco has planned to install 6,673 green towers in difficult and uncovered terrain of north-eastern states. In 2018, the company launched “Project Ojas” for energy conservation with software-based energy charges optimisation and DG set optimisation. Under the project, BSNL has deployed renewable/non-renewable sources powering non-electrified base transceiver stations (BTSs), covering 20 sites in urban areas and 10 sites in rural areas. The telco has replaced air conditioners with turbo ventilators for cooling BTSs. Further, it has adopted the renewable energy service company (RESCO) model for online monitoring of renewable energy initiatives at its corporate offices. Under the RESCO model, the company has commissioned a 65 kW grid-connected rooftop solar plant at its office building in Kerala in 2019. The move has been undertaken as a part of company’s plan to set up 505 kW rooftop solar capacity on its building in the state. Further, similar plants will be commissioned on 12 more BSNL buildings. The 505 kWp capacity plant will produce 740,000 units per year and save 600 tonnes of CO2 emissions. BSNL has deployed solar plants at its nine office sites in eastern Uttar Pradesh and plans to add another 11 sites, reducing 20 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. On similar lines, 148 solar plants with 2.55 MWp of capacity have been planned at exchange buildings in Madhya Pradesh.

Reliance Jio’s efforts towards establishing a green network include deployment of energy efficient technologies and innovative tower design with natural convection cooling (chimney effect). Jio is focusing on the use of high energy density Li-ion batteries over conventional lead acid battery to eliminate DG use at 80 per cent of its sites (with less than eight hours of power outages). Methanol fuel cells and solar-based solutions are used by the company to replace DGs at 20 per cent of its sites with long power outages (more than eight hours per day) and power off-grid sites.

Tata Teleservices has implemented various green initiatives to optimise its power consumption, which has resulted in substantial cost savings and reduction in the carbon footprint. The initiative has reduced 16 MUs of energy consumption. In 2018, the company had six of its core locations operating on renewable energy sourced from wind energy firms, using around 12,950 MWh during the year.

Challenges and the way forward

The Indian telecom industry is the second largest consumer of diesel after the railways, consuming about 2,000 million litres annually. As per Deloitte, the lack of grid connections to telecom tower sites and grid power outages are the key factors driving diesel consumption. Although reducing diesel dependency and carbon emissions has been a top priority for all telecom players, the strategy took a back seat due to dropping revenues and piling debts in the industry. The industry that once contributed about 15 per cent to the GDP, is now contributing only around 6.5 per cent. High capex is one of the key challenges facing the industry.

In April 2019, the Department of Telecommunications proposed to set up a joint task force with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy to promote green technologies in the sector. For the proposed “Go Green” policy, the sector needs to look beyond solar energy and focus on tapping alternative energy options such as wind and fuels including biodiesel, fuel cells, LNG and CNG.