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Powering Rural Sites: Energy management strategies for efficient telecom operations

July 20, 2017
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The telecom industry’s energy needs have changed significantly in recent years owing to the increased usage of mobile services and expansion of telecom towers. These towers need to be operational on a 24x7 basis, and thus require a continuous supply of electricity. While in urban areas there is adequate availability of power, the rural areas present a major challenge for telecom operators.

India’s current level of rural electrification stands at an abysmal 55 per cent. Even in the case of electrified villages, telecom sites receive grid power for less than 12 hours per day. The lack of uninterrupted grid power at most rural sites has forced telecom tower companies to rely on costly and less efficient solutions such as diesel generator (DG) sets. However, the high cost of diesel (double the grid power cost in certain states) has resulted in a severe cash burn, hitting the bottom line of companies in a big way. In addition to cost implications, the use of diesel has a serious environmental impact. The annual carbon dioxide emissions owing to diesel usage at telecom tower sites are estimated at 10 million tonnes. This accounts for around 1 per cent of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions, much higher than the global standard of 0.7 per cent. Diesel pilferage is another major challenge in rural areas. As per industry estimates, tower companies lose around Rs 22 billion every year due to diesel theft, which adds to the overall costs.

To overcome these challenges, energy management has emerged as a key focus area for the telecom industry, particularly in rural locations where around 70 per cent of the network’s energy needs are met through non-grid power. Moreover, given that the next wave of demand for high speed data services is likely to come from rural areas owing to government initiatives such as Digital India and BharatNet, it has become imperative for telecom tower companies to optimise their energy usage in these regions.

Optimising energy usage

One way of optimising energy usage in rural areas is to reduce its overall consumption. According to the Indian Energy Security Scenarios 2047, a tool developed by the government to assess the potential energy scenarios, base transceiver stations (BTSs) consume the maximum power at tower sites. The number of BTSs installed varies from site to site, and depends on the number of subscribers, area of coverage, data traffic and teledensity. In rural areas, BTSs typically have a configuration of 2/2/2, which requires about 1.3 kW of power supply. At indoor sites, there is a need to maintain an appropriate ambient temperature through air conditioning for the equipment to operate efficiently. This energy consumption can be reduced through innovative cooling methods such as free cooling units, direct current (DC) air conditioning and rackcooling, which consume less power than traditional air-conditioning units. The industry has also converted a significant number of indoor sites to outdoor ones in order to reduce the use of air conditioners, thus saving a sufficient amount of energy and diesel. In addition, several energy efficient outdoor mountable BTSs, customised for rural areas, are available in the market, which do not require air conditioning.

Another way to ensure efficient energy consumption in rural areas is to undertake remote monitoring of tower sites on a real-time basis. This involves analysing the energy consumption data provided by monitoring devices installed at telecom sites. The monitoring devices include weather sensors, fuel level sensors, light sensors and thermostats, which can be deployed either alongside a DG  or in the battery bank. These provide data on DGs, electricity consumed from the grid and air-conditioning equipment. This data can help companies design effective business strategies to manage their energy costs.

Growing government interest

The government has also shown significant interest in cutting energy costs and diesel usage. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), all service providers are required to evolve a carbon credit policy in line with the carbon credit norms in order to achieve a carbon footprint level of maximum 50 per cent in rural areas by 2020. To this end, all service providers need to set carbon emission reduction targets for the mobile network at 12 per cent and 17 per cent by 2016-17 and 2018-19 respectively.

Besides setting targets for the industry, the government is encouraging the adoption of innovative solutions such as renewable energy. To this end, the Department of Telecommunications, through a directive issued in January 2012, set stringent targets for implementing green technologies in the telecom sector. As per the directive, 50 per cent of rural sites were targeted to be powered by renewable energy sources by 2015 and deployments in rural areas were to reach 75 per cent by 2020. TRAI recently issued a consultation paper, “Approach towards Sustainable Telecommunications”, which outlined the significance of energy efficiency in telecom networks, discussed the various renewable energy solutions for telecom networks and gave suggestions for optimising network performance in terms of energy demand.

Renewable energy solutions

To meet government mandates and fulfil individual interests, industry players have now warmed to the idea of deploying renewable energy solutions as a potential alternative to conventional sources of power at tower sites. Further, the cost economics pertaining to sources such as solar and wind has improved significantly in recent years, resulting in several small-scale deployments.

Solar has emerged as the most deployable and favourable technology in the green domain. It is best suited for rural regions, which offer a large area of land for panel installation. At present, solar sites account for 10 per cent of tower companies’ portfolios. In addition, hybrids of solar photovoltaic, biogasifiers, DGs and batteries are already in commercial use by many tower infrastructure companies. The solar-DG hybrid solution is emerging as the most preferred option in rural areas. Moreover, with the solar power tariff recently hitting a new historic low of Rs 2.44 per kWh, solar is set to become the most financially feasible renewable energy option in rural areas, apart from being the most easily deployable one.

Meanwhile, wind energy is being deployed for telecom networks in rural areas in states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and parts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where the annual average wind speed is 5-6 metres per second.

Another popular source of renewable energy is biomass, which is an economically and commercially viable solution for rural sites with an average load of over 5 kW and grid outages of more than eight hours. However, issues relating to biomass feedstock availability, logistics and fuel security have prevented large-scale deployments. Further, industry stakeholders are testing the feasibility of jatropha oil, a biofuel available in sufficient quantities in rural areas, for powering telecom sites.

Challenges and the way forward

While industry stakeholders are taking energy management measures in rural areas, there are multiple challenges that hinder their implementation. Since the population in rural and remote areas is scattered, tower companies need to adopt an optimal energy management strategy in order to ensure adequate capacity and coverage. Further, 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 solutions before arriving at the best permutation for a particular site. Another challenge is the large-scale capex requirement for deploying renewable energy solutions at a time when companies are struggling to meet even their operational expenditure. In addition, most renewable energy sources need to be deployed along with appropriate storage technologies, which would further add to the capex.

Nevertheless, about 70 per cent of the new tower roll-outs will be in rural and semi-urban areas. Therefore, the energy needs in these areas will continue to grow over the next few years. Considering this, small capacity and low power consuming systems running on non-conventional energy sources need to be installed in rural areas as the capacity requirement in these areas is much less than that in urban areas. Meanwhile, the government would need to provide tower companies with financial aid in the form of incentives such as tax holidays, accelerated depreciation and zero or minimum duties on various renewable energy components such as solar cells, fuel cells and modules to compensate for the additional capex required for deploying renewable energy solutions.

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