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Green Switch: Sector moves towards alternative energy solutions

March 13, 2014
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With telecom penetration in the country increasing, the sector’s demand for energy has also grown significantly. Erratic and inadequate grid power supply has forced telecom tower companies to use diesel generators (DGs) and other energy sources to ensure network continuity.

However, diesel is an expensive option for energy generation and is also a polluting fuel. It has been estimated that the country’s over 420,000 telecom towers currently consume over 3 billion litres of diesel and emit more than 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.

Realising this, the government and the industry have been promoting energy efficient and renewable solutions to power telecom towers. In 2012, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) issued a directive stating that 75 per cent of rural towers and 33 per cent of urban towers need to be powered by hybrid energy by 2020. While the industry considers this an ambitious target, telecom operators and tower companies have been making efforts to shift to alternative energy in order ensure continuous power supply as well as optimise their energy costs.

The key initiatives taken by the industry are as follows…

Initiatives by telecom operators

•Bharti Airtel established a 100 kW rooftop solar power plant in Gangaganj, Lucknow, in January 2013. The plant is located in one of the major switching and routing centres that processes the operator’s voice and data traffic. The project received 30 per cent subsidy from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and is expected to save about 26,000 litres of diesel per year. Going forward, the company is planning to set up similar plants at six other locations, generating about 300 kWp of solar energy. Further, it intends to use wind and solar systems to power its telecom towers in Africa. In the current financial year, the company intends to set up solar and wind power systems at 1,300-1,400 of its towers in Africa. These installations are likely to help  the company reduce its diesel consumption by 11 million litres.

•Tata Teleservices Limited (TTSL) has launched Project Optimus, which is aimed at optimising energy consumption from the grid, DG sets and natural resources. The department set up for the project works closely with vendors in developing customised solutions and carries out pilot projects to test the feasibility of these concepts. At present, some TTSL base stations use solar and wind power. Recently, TTSL powered two of its mobile switching centre servers in Karnataka through a wind power project, which generates 7.36 MUs of electricity annually. Another key initiative launched under Project Optimus is the installation of outdoor capsules for indoor base stations. In these systems, the indoor base station is housed in outdoor cabinets, which are equipped with heat exchangers/natural cooling systems and are installed outside the shelter. These installations act as free cooling units, which use the ambient air to cool the equipment by drawing external air into the shelter. Further, 75 per cent of the company’s tower stations operate on a multi-tenancy sharing basis, leading to energy savings.

•Vodafone India recently launched the third edition of its sustainability report, Footprints III, providing details on the various green initiatives taken by the company during 2012-13. The report states that the operator has extended the use of hybrid generators at its base stations to about 2,700 sites, thereby reducing diesel consumption by 54 per cent. These hybrid generators are a combination of diesel and battery generators with alternative energy to power the base stations. To reduce energy consumption, the company equipped 1,500 base stations with fan filter units for natural air circulation. This helped in avoiding air conditioners at these sites. Moreover, cooling boxes were installed at 62 per cent of the indoor sites. In terms of renewable energy, Vodafone installed solar power at 250 sites across the country. However, this on-site renewable generation powers a small number of base stations.

•Idea Cellular secured a grant of $1 million from the US Trade and Development Agency to fund its green telecom project in December 2013. The pilot project involves the deployment of solar hybrid methanol-based fuel cells (SHMBFCs) at 5 per cent of the company’s towers in India. The project will assess the technical, economic and financial feasibility of deploying fuel cells, which can provide continuous and uninterrupted power to off-grid telecom towers. Under the project, Idea Cellular plans to replace stationary diesel engines with SHMBFC technology using 2.5 kW and 5 kW fuel cell units. The pilot project is being supported by ICF International, which plans to undertake a feasibility study in the next few months.

•A panel constituted by DoT has proposed that Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) be entrusted with the task of expediting the deployment of solar technology in its cell towers in rural India with support from the Universal Service Obligation Fund. The panel, which includes members from DoT, MNRE, BSNL and industry associations, was constituted by DoT in March 2013 to prepare a road map and propose a comprehensive programme for deployment of renewable energy options in the telecom sector. Under this directive, BSNL plans to undertake solarisation at tower sites in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and the Northeast, which face severe power shortage. In this regard, BSNL had floated a tender in August 2013 for supply, installation, testing, operation and maintenance (for five years) of 1,315 sites of the 2G GSM network in extremism-affected areas in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. Towers installed in these areas are mandated to be run on solar energy. Vihaan Networks Limited and HFCL are likely to be awarded the contract.

•Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) is reportedly in negotiations with Saudi Telecom and Omantel to supply renewable energy solutions to power the operators’ tower networks. These projects are expected to be executed on a turnkey basis by TCIL Saudi Communications Limited, TCIL’s offshore joint venture. Further, TCIL is reportedly planning to assist operators in selecting hybrid power solutions, which may include a combination of renewable energy and grid power.

Initiatives by tower companies

•Indus Towers has set up over 20,000 diesel-free sites across 15 circles and plans to make another 10,000 sites diesel-free during 2013-14. As a result, there has been a 15 per cent decline in the company’s diesel use in the last three years, while its operations grew by over 35 per cent. Moreover, the company has deployed technological solutions including temperature-controlled telecom equipment to allow heat transfer, which reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions.

•Bharti Infratel’s GreenTowers P7 Program is an initiative aimed at adopting cleaner technologies for power generation and energy efficiency. The company utilises a solar-DG hybrid model for its telecom towers, under which solar energy is used along with diesel and a battery. At present, this solution is used at more than 1,200 sites with an installed capacity of approximately 6 MW. These systems generate about 8 MUs of energy annually. Bharti Infratel is also looking to use hydrogen fuel cells. Successful trials have been conducted at tower sites and the company plans to scale up this technology. Under the GreenTowers Program, the reduction of equipment load on tower infrastructure is achieved through the use of systems such as the direct current (DC) free cooling unit, which cools the shelters without air conditioning by using the outside ambient cold airstream. Other energy efficient solutions deployed at tower sites include DC DGs and integrated power management solutions.

Key challenges

Clearly, service providers are moving ahead in implementing renewable energy solutions to power their networks. Besides solar power solutions, companies are also testing solutions based on hydrogen fuel cells, bioenergy and wind. Many companies have deployed new base stations that operate on low power and at optimal capacity, resulting in reduced power consumption. However, the scale of implementation has been limited so far.

There are major challenges in increasing the use of alternative energy in the telecom sector. Key among these is the infirm nature of power supply from the alternative solutions. Moreover, a different set of renewable solutions is required for different sites. Therefore, thorough discussion and testing are required of each technology and its relevant economics.

Meeting the investment requirement for implementing these solutions is a challenge for the telecom industry, which is facing a high debt burden.

That said, it cannot be denied that shifting to greener solutions is the only way forward for the industry. For this, a balanced approach will be required from the government and the industry with the former facilitating a smooth transition through policy support, and the latter investing in testing and implementing the best available solutions.

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