Energy costs account for approximately one-fourth of a telco’s operating expenditure. In far-flung and remote areas, challenges related to the availability and reliability of grid electricity have compelled the industry to rely on diesel generators (DGs), which are expensive as well as a threat to the environment. As a result, the telecom sector has emerged as a con­tri­­butor of global greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the country.

That said, there is an urgent need to bring sustainability in Indian telecom operations and stakeholders are actively looking for ways to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. They are switching to energy efficient equipment and  exploring renewable sources of energy.

The sector is making concerted efforts to improve its energy management such as converting indoor sites to outdoor ones. Indoor sites are energy intensive and require air conditioning, which accounts for around a third of a site’s opex. The re­placement of air conditioners with free cooling units (FCUs) and natural cooling units has led to a significant decline in the energy consumption of tower sites. In addition, the use of advanced, energy efficient and high temperature outdoor base transceiver stations (BTSs) has helped in reducing the energy outlay of companies. Energy storage solutions are not only crucial in remote areas lacking grid connectivity, but are also a commercially viable alternative to DG sets. Historically, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have been used at sites as they are suitable for cyclic use, compact, quick to charge and slow to discharge. Another upcoming trend is the use of renewable energy solutions at sites, which offers significant benefits in terms of opex. Solar solutions are witnessing significant traction owing to a significant decline in the cost of panels. Wind and bio­mass sources are also being tapped at tower sites. takes a look at the energy management initiatives taken by the telecom industry…

Industry initiatives

According to T.R. Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Asso­ciation, “The industry has adopted a slew of initiatives to reduce the diesel consumption at telecom tower sites. Initiatives such as diesel free-sites (sites consuming one litre diesel a day), conversion of sites from indoor to outdoor, energy efficient storage solutions such as Li-ion batteries, and renewable energy solutions are increasingly being deployed to ensure uninterrupted power supply and to minimise the use of diesel at sites.”

Bharti Airtel has set several targets  for the reduction of its carbon footprint. As per the Airtel Sustainability Plan 2020, the company aims to reduce its CO2 emissions intensity per terabyte (TB) by more than 90 per cent; reduce direct emissions and diesel and energy consumption by 10 per cent; increase the use of renewable en­ergy by more than 50 per cent; and ma­in­tain a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 2 across its data centres.

The company has achieved a 92 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions per TB in the past four years and a 43 per cent reduction in CO2 emission per rack in its data centres over the past three years. In 2017-18, it reduced its CO2 emissions per TB by 76.7 per cent over the previous year and saved 23.6 million litres of diesel in network infrastructure with the deployment of energy efficient BTSs, real-time energy monitoring solutions, hybrid battery bank solutions, FCUs and natural cooling units, renewable energy solutions, etc. Bharti Air­tel also reduced CO2 emission per rack by 17.7 per cent and saved over 3,300 MWh of energy in its data centres with equipment optimisation, cooling optimisation, PUE correction and improvement, diesel optimisation and cold aisle containment, etc. Airtel facilities have reduced their CO2 emissions per square foot by 6.43 per cent and saved over 2,500 MWh of electricity through energy efficient lighting and motion sensors, photovoltaic solutions and power factor correction and power purchase agreements. In terms of green energy, approximately 96.5 MUs of renewable energy has been used in its operations.

Indus Towers has pledged to become diesel-free by 2021. Its diesel consumption has reduced to half during the past five years. The company has reduced 183 million litres of annual diesel consumption, re­moved more than 70,000 ACs and reduced over 10 million tonnes of CO2 em­issions during the period. In addition, the company has deployed solar and biomass energy solutions at approximately 11,000 sites over the past three years and aims to cover 50 per cent of total towers by 2021.

As per its sustainability report for 2016-17, Indus Towers converted a total of 14,423 indoor sites to outdoor ones. It reduced its diesel consumption by 713 TJ, a 6.98 per cent reduction over the preceding year. The total energy consumed per tenancy also reduced by 2.98 per cent over 2015-16. As of March 2017, Indus Towers had a total of 59,788 green sites. The company invested a total capex of Rs 5 billion in energy initiatives during the year.

As of March 2018, Bharti Infratel has installed 14,193 green sites and more than 2,500 solar towers across states. Further, the company has adopted ZEN and P7 programs with three key objectives – re­ducing energy consumption at sites, using more energy efficient equipment and using alternative sources of energy. The company has electrified 96.7 per cent of towers as of March 2018 to reduce its die­sel consumption. In addition, it has reduced its diesel consumption by 31 per cent during the past three years.

Bharti Infratel has also taken several measures to minimise its energy and diesel consumption to reduce carbon emissions. The company has added VRLA and VRLA+ lithium LVCS-based solutions to their existing solutions bucket consisting of high-end VRLA and Li-ion batteries. It has also installed power management systems like the integrated project management system and replaced air conditioners at sites with solar-powered natural free cooling units, large-sized micro cooling cabinets and HEX-based micro cooling units.

Further, the company is focused on converting indoor sites to fully outdoor by removing air conditioners. This initiative began in 2012 and more than 70 per cent of its sites are outdoor at present. Bharti Infratel has also deployed a significant am­ount of solar to meet its carbon emission reduction target. Going forward, the company expects to further cut back energy costs by introducing remote monitoring eq­uipment and big data analytics solutions.

GTL Infrastructure Limited achieved 91 per cent electrified status for radiating sites in March 2018. The company has a total of 7,875 diesel-free sites, of which 2,926 were operational as of March 31, 2018. In 2017-18, it implemented a host of energy management measures to reduce its net energy bill. These include conversion of indoor sites to outdoor ones, installation of free cooling systems and emergency free cooling systems, improvement in the efficiency of grid-connected sites, use of new technology equipment to increase power efficiency, deployment of integrated power management units for alternating current (AC) power line conditioning and AC to direct current (DC) conversion, deployment of workforce to prevent power and fuel theft, and signing of fixed energy contracts with various operators.

To tap alternative sources of energy, the company deployed deep discharge and Li-ion batteries for faster charging and the optimum use of backup power and DC-type DGs with small capacity at pilot sites. To overcome operational level challenges pertaining to payment settlement, and invoicing and resolution of issues, the company is signing fixed energy contracts with customers. Further, the timely revision of fixed energy billing contracts is ensured to improve liquidity and mitigate energy losses.

The way forward

Going forward, we can expect to see an increase in the conversion of indoor sites and adoption of state-of-the-art energy storage solutions to reduce the sector’s de­pendence on diesel, which, with its increasing prices, has put undue financial pressure on telcos. Significant advancements in the renewable energy sector can be expected to reduce costs and increase the attractiveness of such sources of energy. With the government closely focusing on renewable energy, these technologies may mature sooner than expected, in turn increasing their commercial viability.

That said, the sector needs to invest a lot more capital and effort in energy management in order to achieve the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s target of supporting around 75 per cent and 33 per cent of towers through hybrid solutions in urban and rural areas respectively. How­ever, it remains unclear as to whether the financially burdened telecom sector, which is looking at massive investments in the near future with the launch of 5G, has the capacity to allot significant capex to ac­hieve these targets.