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Green Governance: Clean energy initiatives for tower companies

March 31, 2014
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India currently has an operational tower base of over 425,000. According to a report released by Intelligent Energy, the energy expenditure for running these towers accounts for 70 per cent of the total operating costs in rural areas and 15-30 per cent in urban areas. Owing to erratic supply from the power grid, infrastructure companies use diesel generators, batteries and various power management equipment to ensure energy backup and round-the-clock network availability.

The increasing dependence on diesel generators for backup power results in a high level of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, diesel transportation and storage pose a key challenge in remote and hilly areas. Increasing diesel prices also add to the overall expenditure of tower companies. These issues have driven the adoption of renewable energy solutions in the telecom infrastructure sector. At present, tower operators across the country are implementing pilot projects using various renewable energy technologies (RETs) like solar photovoltaic, wind, biomass and fuel cells.

The government is also taking initiatives to promote the use of green energy sources. It has proposed the adoption of these technologies in the telecom sector under the Twelfth Five Year Plan. Further, the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund is being leveraged for providing incentives for pilot projects using RETs.

In fact, to ensure the deployment of green telecom in urban and rural areas, the USO Fund has adopted a two-pronged strategy: to encourage the use of RETs in its future schemes and provide financial support to power existing towers installed under the Shared Mobile Infrastructure (SMI) scheme with alternative energy sources.

The USO Fund’s key initiatives in this regard are as follows:

•The National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project, which is being funded by the USO Fund, will use energy-efficient gigabit-capable passive optical network equipment powered by solar energy at the gram panchayat level.

•So far, 7,317 towers have been installed in rural areas under the SMI scheme, which was financed by the USO Fund. Also, a scheme for providing alternative energy sources to remote tower sites by deploying RETs is being prepared. Under this scheme, ICRIER, an economic policy think tank, has been appointed to prepare a road map based on a study of 20 pilot sites.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has also released guidelines to encourage the uptake of green initiatives. As per the guidelines, 50 per cent of all rural towers and 20 per cent of all urban towers are to be powered by hybrid energy by 2015. Further, 75 per cent of rural towers and 33 per cent of urban towers are to be powered by hybrid energy by 2020. Also, all telecom products, equipment and services should be assessed for energy efficiency and performance, and should be green passport-certified by 2015 on the basis of energy consumption rating (ECR). Telecommunication engineering centres will be the nodal agencies for certifying telecom products, equipment and services based on ECR. In addition, operators will have to submit the carbon footprint of their network operations twice a year to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. DoT has asked operators to adopt a voluntary code of practice encompassing energy efficient network planning, infrastructure sharing and the use of renewable energy sources to reduce their carbon footprint.

According to the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association, a hybrid solution of solar energy, diesel gensets and batteries has been deployed at 4,000 tower sites by various operators. Also, biomass or a bio-CNG solution has been deployed on a trial basis at five tower sites in the Maharashtra and Goa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (East), Bihar and Andhra Pradesh circles, and a survey is being carried out to assess the impact of these solutions.

Meanwhile, the second phase of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission has been focusing on developing special schemes for encouraging the adoption of solar power-based telecom towers. Other government initiatives such as Power for All, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyuti-karan Yojana, the Village Energy Security Programme and the Remote Village Electrification Programme are expected to significantly improve electricity access in rural areas. Further, increased grid power availability may help in ensuring diesel-free operations at tower sites. Also, diesel consumption can be curtailed depending on the storage capacity of batteries and the availability of solar energy at affordable costs. This will help the telecom industry in reducing its energy costs as well as its carbon footprint.

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