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Displacing Diesel: Energy management solutions at telecom tower sites

November 19, 2015
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The energy needs of the telecom sector have grown manifold over the past few years on account of the deployment of a large number of mobile towers and the increasing uptake of data services. To reduce diesel consumption at their tower sites, telecom tower companies have started taking various initiatives and deploying energy-efficient solutions. However, there is a need to improve the financial viability of these solutions to ensure a high return on investment (RoI) with lower operations and maintenance (O&M) costs. Industry experts share their views on operators’ energy saving strategies, the role of storage systems in energy management and the key issues and challenges in deploying green solutions… 


What are some of the key trends that have been witnessed in energy management in the telecom sector over the past few years?

Sharat Chandra

Mobile networks have grown beyond the reach of grid electricity, with operators and tower companies deploying a significant part of their tower infrastructure in areas that do not have access to grid power. While it all began with a pass-through model of power and fuel costs, there is an increasing shift towards a fixed cost model, thus ensuring that the service provider is more accountable for improving the efficiency of overall operations, including energy management.

Following trials of various technology solutions in distributed energy generation, storage and despatch, the hybrid model of energy management has emerged as the only suitable and viable option. Taking the diversity of grid availability bands and load requirements into account, the telecom industry has come to terms with a set of hybrid solutions that fit reasonably well into a broad category of field conditions. Energy storage is at the core of determining energy autonomy. This augurs well for energy service companies as they will take the responsibility for handling power system investment as well as the daily activities for mobile network operators in exchange for a monthly fee.

Anil Gupta

Energy is the major component of costs for telecom companies. Energy expenses account for one-third of the opex for running the network. Thus, reducing energy expenses requires concerted efforts and well-defined strategies.

Over the past few years, telecom tower companies have invested a large amount of capex in:

  • Improved technology – Huge investments have been made in research and development as well as in improving network equipment efficiency so as to bring down energy consumption.
  • Enhancing operational efficiencies – Innovative products that consume less or no energy. For instance, free cooling units (FCUs) and natural cooling units (NCUs) have been adopted while air conditioners, which are the highest energy consuming equipment, have been removed.
  • Advance and real-time analytics – Over the past five years, tower companies have invested funds in building IT systems and tower operation centres that are capable of depicting real-time conditions at sites and generating a high level of analytics for better O&M of sites. 

Although a lot of advancement has taken place in India in the past few years, there is still significant scope for improvement as the country is witnessing a data revolution. Given the surge in demand for smartphones and data, a large number of additional data sites will be required in the near future. Telecom tower companies need to devise new strategies to use grid power more efficiently and simultaneously exclude diesel from day-to-day operations for better, sustainable and scalable operations.

Tushar Kapadia

Post the March 2015 spectrum auction, the telecom sector is gearing up for the next phase of network growth. Operators are expanding 3G networks and rolling out 4G data networks in a cost-effective manner. This translates into the following trends for energy management at base transceiver station (BTS) sites:

  • Increased expectations of DC power uptime for network availability along with tighter energy cost budgets.
  • Telecom operators are planning to deploy additional 3G or 4G BTS sites co-located with their existing 2G equipment at tower sites.
  • Tower companies are receiving co-location tenancy opportunities at sites that are running at full capacity and hence they need to incur upgradation costs for ensuring technical feasibility.
  • Telecom operators have to meet the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) green tower directives (January 2012). DoT has high expectations from telecom tower companies to reduce the carbon footprint by lowering their en-ergy consumption.
  • Tower companies have been focusing on making sites diesel-free in areas that have good grid power availability.

 Sairam Prasad

Energy management in the Indian telecom sector has come a long way during the past few years. There was a time when poor grid and off-grid sites were run only on diesel generators (DGs) with very low engine efficiency. Today, efforts are being made to make these sites diesel-free, using new energy technologies such as solar, lithium-ion batteries, biomass and fuel cells.

What energy saving strategies are being adopted by telecom tower companies in India?

Sharat Chandra

India is at the cusp of a data revolution. With the increasing proliferation of smartphones among the Indian masses, data is expected to grow exponentially, requiring 30 per cent additional data sites over the next few years. An amalgamation of cooperation and competition among telecom operators and tower companies will be required to achieve this next phase of growth. The Indian tower industry has witnessed many key changes in the past few years as the focus has shifted from growth to operational prudence. Driven by exploding data usage and the roll-out of next-generation 3G/4G networks, the industry is expected to continue its growth journey while focusing on a smaller and smarter energy footprint. This calls for cost optimisation of energy, use of hybrid solutions for energy efficiency and adoption of outsourcing models. These models mark a comprehensive capex shift towards the service company rather than procuring a mix of products from different vendors, while operational management of the solution is outsourced with limited accountability. The industry must carefully examine the benefits of earlier dispensations of purchase price and reverse auctions driving the choice of solution and, therefore, the demerits of the unrealised promise of a reduction in opex.

Anil Gupta

Companies are incurring high capex in energy saving initiatives to reduce diesel consumption as well as energy consumption. These include:

  • Making investments in high efficiency equipment.
  • Converting existing indoor sites to outdoor sites with the help of NCUs or FCUs, thereby removing air conditioning at sites.
  • Investment in advanced storage systems to remove DGs from sites, thus converting normal sites to green sites.
  • Investment in renewable energy sources like solar.

 In addition, site-specific customised solutions like micro-cooling are being deployed, depending on the site configuration and geographical needs.

Higher investment and long gestation periods for RoI are key challenges for implementing green energy initiatives.

Tushar Kapadia

Tower companies, independently or in coordination with operators, have taken several energy saving measures, including:

  • Right-sizing or downsizing DG sets in order to control the diesel consumption per tenant.
  • Reducing diesel consumption by installing enhanced capacity battery banks to provide DC power during grid power outages.
  • Deploying free cooling devices to reduce air conditioning at select locations with low ambient temperatures.
  • Moving indoor BTSs to outdoor weather-proof enclosures.
  • Replacement of the older version of BTS equipment with power-efficient BTS systems by some operators.


Sairam Prasad

Currently, all tower companies are facing different challenges. While some such as Indus Towers have medium and good grid sites but higher loads, some like Bharti Infratel have poor grid and medium grid sites but low to medium loads. Moreover, some like Viom Networks face both situations in different geographies. Hence, different tower companies have adopted different energy management strategies to address issues based on load and grid conditions.

The first category of tower companies extensively uses valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) battery hybrids to reduce or eliminate diesel usage. The second category tower companies have adopted technologies such as solar, lithium and VRLA hybrid mix to reduce or eliminate diesel usage. Meanwhile, all the companies have adopted outdoor BTSs to reduce air-conditioning loads and have converted indoor sites to outdoor sites using technologies such as fan coil unit cooling, DC air conditioning and rack cooling.

What role can energy storage systems play in the operations of telecom sites? Which storage technologies are viable options for telecom operators?

Sharat Chandra

Given the strong push for data, demanding almost 100 per cent uptime, telecom companies have increased their focus on their core strength of subscriber acquisition and marketing while demanding stringent uptime and energy efficiency from tower companies. These tower companies must, therefore, engage in a further reduction in energy opex, which accounts for a major portion of their operating expenses. The present grid condition in India is sporadic, intermittent and deficient, but as the backup energy is largely produced from diesel, the cost of energy is high and carbon emission intensive.

In such a scenario, VRLA technology has a role to play but only in areas where grid availability is assured for 12-16 hours every day on an average. Below this level of grid availability, the use of lithium-ion batteries has found wide acceptance, especially across telecom companies as the technology supports quick charge and extended discharge characteristics that are ideally suited for the cyclic usage pattern. The coupling of lithium with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems makes a strong case for the meaningful inclusion of renewable energy solutions on a mega scale with a focus on minimising DG run- hours. Upkeep, capacity planning, technology upgrades and capex will all have to be delivered as a part of the promise.

Anil Gupta

Telecom equipment requires 24x7 power. In most areas, grid power is not available for 4-10 hours. As a result, network operations are dependent on DGs, which, besides being damaging to the environment, are very costly. Hence, energy expenses form the largest component of the costs incurred by telecom operators, varying from 20 per cent to 40 per cent in different geographies.

Energy storage systems play a pivotal role in unreliable electricity supply scenarios. A storage system with higher backup and better efficiency means less DG run-hours, which translates into reduced diesel consumption. This is not only a financial gain for an organisation but also means lower carbon emissions and a reduced carbon footprint.

Indus Towers has deployed a large number of advanced VRLA+ batteries and lithium-ion batteries, which has resulted in a significant reduction in diesel consumption. Moreover, on many sites, we have been able to remove DGs completely and convert normal sites to green sites.

Tushar Kapadia

For telecom sites, the most effective en-ergy storage systems are battery banks providing DC power backup. This backup power source provides power for three to six hours on a daily basis. The solution works well for eliminating the use of DG sets at locations where grid power availability is up to 20 hours per day. At other locations with poorer grid availability, the enhanced backup power helps reduce diesel consumption and related logistics. VRLA and lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are some of the other solutions. However, these are capital-intensive solutions and will not help reduce energy opex. Hence, storage solutions can be a win-win strategy only if the costs and benefits are shared between telecom operators and their respective tower companies.

Sairam Prasad

Unlike earlier when VRLA was a dom-inant storage method used primarily for backup, energy storage systems are now playing an active role in reducing or eliminating the use of diesel at sites. Depending on the grid and load conditions of a site, both lithium-ion and VRLA are used extensively to store energy from various sources like grid, DG and solar, which are discharged effectively to reduce diesel run- hours. In urban areas, lithium is catching up fast for small and micro cells as the most suitable technology due to its advantages of space, weight, efficiency and charge discharge times.

What are the key issues and challenges faced by telecom companies in implementing energy management solutions?

Sharat Chandra

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s mandate requires that telecom companies should use renewable energy sources to power at least 50 per cent of rural telecom towers and 20 per cent of urban telecom towers by end-2015. By 2020, telecom companies have to convert 75 per cent of rural towers and 33 per cent of urban towers to run on hybrid power. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s recent mandate to immediately convert a minimum of 50,000 towers to solar PV technology is another step towards ensuring compliance with the clean energy norms. The key to success lies with the implementation of energy storage solutions to save opex, corrective and preventive field maintenance using processes, tools and technology, and optimisation of systems and services to ensure performance is maintained at or above the agreed quality levels.

Needless to say, the scale and set of industry standards for performance measurement and delivery will have to be developed, adopted and monitored for rigorous implementation if this vision has to take shape. Large players are seeking to enter the opex model space. There is need for a partnership approach to attract them and assign them an eminent presence within the industry, as the future of telecom in India does not depend so much on the move from 3G to 4G and beyond as it does on the availability of uptime of telecom infrastructure.

Anil Gupta

Telecom tower companies are grappling with several challenges. These include:

  • Stringent government laws.
  • Each telecom site is different in terms of configuration, number of BTSs, load requirement, grid power availability, and prevailing weather conditions. Therefore, companies need to try different permutations and combinations before arriving at the best solution for a particular site.
  • On the operational front, the increase in diesel- and grid-based power costs has made energy management at tower sites a key concern. While most tower companies have adopted renewable energy to replace DGs, the scale of adoption is limited due to the high capex requirements.
  • High efficiency storage technologies, though available, require a high capex and hence RoI becomes a key issue.
  • Highly decentralised and manpower-intensive operations make the dissemin-ation of knowledge on various initiatives and their maintenance a big challenge.
  • Logistics is a key concern related to enery management in remote areas. 

Tushar Kapadia

In India, the majority of tower sites are owned and operated by tower companies. These towercos have entered into master service agreements with telecom operator tenants for providing passive infrastructure on a shared basis. Energy costs are typically treated as pass-through costs for reimbursement from tenants. However, with increasing cost pressures, telecom operators have been forced to limit their operational expenses, including energy costs. This has resulted in a requirement for energy management services for providing the required DC power at reasonable costs. Some of the key challenges faced by telecom companies are: 

  • The grid power supply and de-mand gap results in power outages, however, telecom towers are required to remain up and running by using DC power.
  • In rural areas, poor voltage regulation is not only a cause of concern for efficiency losses but also poses operational challenges.
  • Tower sites are required to host a variety of BTSs and other active equipment of the sharing tenants. Some of the equipment is sensitive to high temperature. Further, there are indoor and outdoor varieties of BTSs at the same sites. Hence, a generalisation of energy management solutions is not possible.
  • While technological advancements bring new products, they are not always successful. Therefore, bulk deployment of new products faces the risk of failure and technical obsolescence.
  • For the deployment of green energy solutions, DoT’s initiatives need to be echoed by similar government directives to other industrial sectors to bring parity in carbon emission control.

 Sairam Prasad

There are multiple challenges in implementing energy management solutions. The first is that tower companies are not experts in energy technologies. Thus, they depend on external solution providers’ expertise. Second, the solutions are being implemented in bits and pieces, although there is a need to have a holistic and comprehensive energy management approach that can cater to all sites in appropriate form and shape. Third, the large-scale capex required for energy solutions is an issue that is best addressed by opex models. Fourth, technology and operational risks can be covered by semi-opex models, where customers can own assets but the energy service provider takes care of services on a long-term fixed fee basis.

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