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Growing Energy Footprint: Increasing telecom reach fuels demand for power

November 18, 2014
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The energy needs of the telecom sector have grown manifold over the past few years. The unprecedented sector growth in the past decade on account of high voice usage has been supplemented by the deployment of a significant number of telecom towers, which has escalated the energy requirements of operators. At present, India has about 425,000 telecom towers with total tenancies of 750,000. According to industry estimates, these towers require about 12 billion-14 billion units of electricity per annum.

Energy requirements to escalate with new towers

With roll-outs increasing adoption of data services and the rise in new tower roll-outs to support higher network capacity and improve coverage, the energy requirements of the telecom sector will grow even more. This higher power use will be driven not just by greenfield tower roll-outs but also by the addition of new base transceiver stations (BTSs) on existing tower sites. Of the new tower roll-outs every year, about 70 per cent will be in rural and semi-urban areas, which continue to suffer from patchy and/or no grid power availability.

In addition, most tower deployments are likely to take place for spectrum in the higher frequency bands (such as the 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz and 2300 MHz bands) as telecom operators continue to expand their 3G network coverage and roll out 4G infrastructure. Given the weak in-building propagation characteristics of these spectrum bands, the number of towers required to provide adequate coverage is high, which will further increase the sector’s energy demands going forward. Besides, over 300,000 new BTSs are likely to be deployed in the rural market over the next four to five years.

At present, 40 per cent of the installed towers across the country have access to electricity for less than 15 hours. As most states are still facing a power shortage, the situation is not likely to improve. Meanwhile, due to limited or no power availability in most rural areas, operators have resorted to diesel generator (DG) sets. According to ICF International, about 3.42 billion litres of diesel was used by the telecom industry in 2012, and the amount is expected to increase to 4.8 billion litres and 6.3 billion litres by 2015 and 2020 respectively. However, this strategy has resulted in significant operational expenditure for telecom operators as the cost of diesel has risen considerably over the past three years. Moreover, with the government partially deregulating diesel prices, the costs towards diesel consumption are expected to rise further. Another issue involved with the use of diesel, especially in rural areas, has been its pilferage. This results in additional costs for telecom operators.

Green energy and energy efficient solutions gaining adoption

To address the issue of power shortage and reduce diesel consumption, telecom companies are evaluating new solutions and alternative sources of energy, especially solar, wind and hybrid solutions, as well as less power-intensive telecom equipment. Already, about 5,000 telecom tower sites are using green energy solutions for their power requirements.

Among the available green solutions, the solar-DG hybrid solution is emerging as the most preferred by telecom operators and many companies are targeting deploying solar power solutions at 5 to 10 per cent of their tower sites by 2015. In addition, operators and tower companies are considering implementing fuel cell solutions for meeting their power needs while an electrolyser-based fuel cell is under trial. However, the use of wind and biomass energy solutions has been limited because of the associated challenges. Wind energy is not suitable for all tower sites due to limited wind speed at those locations and biomass power solutions suffer from fuel shortage issues.

Telecom companies have been deploying innovative and energy-efficient solutions such as DC-DG and DG-deep discharge battery at their tower sites. In comparison to AC gensets that consume 2.3 litres of diesel per hour, DC gensets consume only 1.6 litres per hour. New battery technologies based on lithium-ion, sodium and advanced valve-regulated lead acid batteries and quick charge-discharge are being implemented. Moreover, operators and tower companies are deploying outdoor BTSs, which do not require air conditioning, thus reducing their power requirements.

While the rising awareness about carbon emissions has pushed telecom companies to opt for green energy solutions and energy efficient products, the regulatory mandate by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has also been a driving force. According to this, telecom companies are mandated to use hybrid power at 50 per cent of rural tower sites and 20 per cent of urban tower sites by 2015. In addition, tower companies are required to ensure that power consumption of each BTS does not exceed 500 W by 2020.

Conclusion

Though the implementation of green energy and energy efficient solutions has been limited so far, operators are likely to step up their efforts to meet the mandate deadline. Their multi-pronged strategies will not only help in putting green energy solutions into practice but also result in energy cost savings, which will give a further incentive to tower companies to adopt green energy solutions.

 
 
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