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Green Growth: Tower industry turns to renewable energy technology

May 25, 2015
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Telecom towers are recognised as critical infrastructure. They play an important role in expanding the reach of affordable telephony in India, with a significant contribution in the increased provision of telecom services. Towers facilitate the transmission of wireless signals for connecting cities, towns and villages. This leads to cost and time savings as underground cables do not need to be deployed.

India’s telecom tower base has more than quadrupled since 2006 to reach more than 500,000. In addition, tower sharing has created a strong incentive in the Indian telecom market, as a result of which the average tenancy ratio has increased to approximately two. The tower industry has facilitated and supported the unique and innovative concept of tower sharing through the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology’s Project MOST (Mobile Operators’ Shared Towers). Tower sharing has allowed the industry to optimise costs and make telecom and broadband services affordable to users. It is also a more efficient way of using capital for creating national assets, reducing tower proliferation and resulting in improved aesthetics and faster roll-outs, thus enhancing service access.

Roll-out difficulties

There are serious challenges standing in the way of tower installations in India such as the shortage of grid-based power, uncertainty in tower installation norms, right-of-way difficulties and issues pertaining to electromagnetic field radiation. The restrictions imposed by state governments on tower installations near waterbodies, schools, hospitals, religious places, railways, electrical lines, etc. are additional roadblocks. Base station deployment is not allowed in narrow lanes either. Procedural delays and the involvement of multiple agencies, with clearances often being required from more than one authority, do not make the process any easier. For instance, no-objection certificates have to be obtained from multiple agencies like the local airport authority, Air Force, etc. State governments also charge heavy fees for such clearances, with the procedures differing from state to state. The tower infrastructure industry has now urged the government to prevent any coercive action against telecom sites without prior consultation with local Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring Cells of the DoT, and intimations or notices to the infrastructure providers. The government has also been asked to grant priority provisions of land and electricity to tower sites, especially in rural areas.

Industry initiatives

A few years ago, the industry pioneered the concept of infrastructure sharing with the aim of maximising asset utilisation. While helping new players in terms of rural penetration, it also had a far-reaching impact on the energy consumption of all sharing operators. Tower infrastructure providers have also been working closely with oper-ators as well as the government to encourage the use of renewable energy at power sites, primarily due to concerns over the increasing emission of greenhouse gases. An important attempt is the replacement of diesel with renewable energy technologies to reduce the carbon footprint. Due to the unavailability of reliable grid power in many rural areas, other sources of energy, like diesel, are often used for providing mobile services. Battery solutions along with free cooling installations are being adopted as well. In addition, energy efficient solutions like conversion to outdoor base transceiver stations (BTSs), distributed antenna systems and the sharing of passive infrastructure has resulted in the reduction of the carbon footprint.

Industry players are now using advanced battery technologies for storage. Lithium-ion batteries are being increasingly adopted by tower infrastructure providers as they are highly reliable, have a longer battery life, can charge faster and also function over a wider temperature operating range. Players are also replacing old batteries with those that employ new technology and undertaking the proper sizing of batteries to reduce the runtime of diesel generator sets by storing more energy. Sites are being made diesel-free by implementing advanced battery technologies.

Green mandate and challenges

The carbon dioxide reduction targets mandated for operators were 5 per cent by 2012-13 and 8 per cent by 2014-15. However, there were only a handful of operators that managed to meet them. The targets for 2016-17 and 2018-19 are 12 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. At the source end, the current CO2 reduction is only due to lesser diesel pilferage, not total diesel reduction. At the demand end, CO2 reduction is due to various initiatives like indoor-outdoor conversion, LCU removal, and the deployment of efficient BTSs. Moving forward, this will be even more difficult as improvements in diesel efficiency are reaching saturation point.

Energy sharing as the future

To power up their towers using renewable energy technology, the telecom tower industry decided to use the knowledge of expert organisations, which was how the concept of renewable energy services companies (RESCOs) came up. Towers falling in clusters owned by multiple tower companies were offered to RESCOs for green power supplies via committed long-term power purchase agreements. As part of the project, RESCOs will set up power plants based on renewable energy near telecom towers and sell power to tower companies at pre-determined costs on a pay-per-use basis. The power generated by RESCOs will be off-grid, with the surplus being sold to communities in nearby areas.

Based on a presentation by T.R. Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association

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