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Green Gains: Industry turns to alternative sources of energy to reduce diesel usage

November 18, 2014
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In recent years, reducing diesel consumption at tower sites has become a key focus area for tower infrastructure providers and operators in India. Consequently, they have resorted to passive infrastructure sharing and a host of other initiatives such as remote monitoring, natural cooling, indoor to outdoor conversion of sites, shutting down (sleeping mode) of base transceiver stations (BTSs) at night, and using variable-frequency diesel generator sets. They have also deployed improvised power management systems, free cooling units and battery technology to improve battery backup. They are also using lithium-ion batteries and advanced valve-regulated lead acid batteries for better efficiency.

While surging fuel costs and an unreliable grid have compelled operators and tower companies to look for innovative solutions and new strategies to meet their sites’ power requirements, the growing awareness of diesel’s negative impact on the environment has translated into a strong business case for the deployment of alternative sources of energy, such as solar off-grid solutions and biomass-based generator sets. The trend has also gained strength from the government’s renewed focus on decreasing the carbon footprint of the telecom industry. The Department of Telecommunications’ mandate to power 75 per cent and 33 per cent towers in rural and urban areas respectively, on hybrid towers by 2020, has resulted in several operators and tower companies deploying renewable energy solutions.

Operators and tower companies can consider several renewable energy options, including solar photovoltaic (PV), wind turbine, biomass, battery, fuel cells and dual-fuel generators, from stand-alone, grid-connected and hybrid points of view. Among these, solar PV and wind turbines require minimal maintenance. For instance, in the case of biomass and fuel cells, fuel procurement and its transportation and storage are issues, as are plant and system maintenance. Solar solutions, on the other hand, depend on the availability and intensity of sunshine, and require equivalent storage capacity and large areas for installation. Similarly, wind-based energy solutions depend on the availability and speed of wind and require similar storage capacity.

In India, among the various renewable energy technologies used at telecom towers, solar PV-based solutions have experienced a better rate of adoption in comparison to other similar technologies. While biomass energy faces scalability issues and wind solutions are limited to good wind zones, solar energy is available abundantly across the country, and is scalable and highly mature. Solar-based solutions have proved to be suitable for both rural and urban areas. As per the GSM Association’s Green Deployment Tracker, a total of 2,570 telecom towers were powered by solar energy as of May 2013.

Going forward, the industry is looking for easily scalable and reliable solutions that offer better return on investment and involve less maintenance and low opex. Significant return on investment for such technologies is very important, particularly from an Indian perspective, as operators here are reeling from a huge debt burden and call tariffs continue to be the lowest in the world. Grid parity also needs to be achieved to ensure the sustenance of renewable solutions over a longer horizon. Finally, a partner for managing energy portfolios is the key requirement for the telecom industry at present, since energy business management is not its core business.

Based on presentations by

Shirish Garud, Senior Fellow and Associate Director, Energy-Environment Technology Development Division, TERI; and

Shachidevi Krishnamurthy, Chief Product

Development Officer, Tata Power Solar

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