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Zero Diesel Sites: Companies attempt to cut back their energy opex and emissions

March 06, 2019
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Energy management has always been a key focus area for tower companies in India. In recent years, improvement in grid connectivity and the industry’s dedicated efforts to manage their energy needs have helped bring down the energy opex and reduce its carbon footprint.

Strategies such as conversion of sites from indoor to outdoor, replacement of diesel with renewable energy sources and storage of excess energy have found many takers within towercos and have helped deliver the desired results.

Telecom tower companies have been converting energy-consuming indoor tower sites to outdoor sites by implementing a number of energy efficient initiatives. Indoor sites require air conditioning, which accounts for around a third of the site’s opex and consumes about 50 per cent power at the tower. Thus, air conditioners are being increasingly replaced with free cooling units (FCUs) and natural cooling units (NCUs).

In addition, they are deploying energy storage solutions, which are crucial for ensuring uninterrupted connectivity in places where grid power is unreliable. Battery banks are emerging as a key energy storage solution. Apart from being an alternative backup source to diesel, the cost of power from batteries is almost half the cost of power from diesel. Earlier, valve-regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries were used to provide back-up power to base transceiver stations (BTSs). However, VRLA batteries suffer from some limitations such as quick discharge, slow charging, shorter lifespan and the need for air conditioning. Over the past few years, new energy efficient technologies such as lithium-ion batteries have emerged with higher performance parameters such as depth of discharge and efficiency.

The tower industry has also deployed renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and biomass in order to reduce its heavy reliance on diesel generator (DG) sets. This has helped tower companies significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and improve the energy efficiency of their operations. The recently approved National Digital Communications Policy also highlights the role of renewable energy technologies in telecommunications.

Of late, some companies have been exploring energy hybrid solutions, which is a combination of solar photovoltaic (PV) batteries, DGs and the grid. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India plans to support around 75 per cent and 33 per cent of towers through hybrid solutions in urban and rural areas respectively. Further, fuel cell systems are being explored. These cells have a higher capacity than renewable energy solutions and can be used for reducing the energy requirement of a telecom site owing to their better efficiency and load characteristics as compared to DG sets.

Adoption across the industry

Indus Towers

Indus Towers intends to make its operations diesel free by 2021. According to its sustainability report for 2017-18, the company had a total of 123,639 towers, of which 67,544 towers were green towers, which implies that more than 50 per cent of the company’s sites are zero diesel sites. The company is planning to scale up its renewable energy deployment programme and targets to cover the remaining 50 per cent of telecom sites by 2021.

As part of its zero diesel initiative, Indus has launched the Harit Sanchar, a green innovation programme. The implementation of Harit Sanchar has resulted in multiple benefits for stakeholders, such as lower greenhouse gas emissions, 24x7 network availability, lower cost of operations due to a huge reduction in opex, and elimination of diesel.

The sustainability report also states that the company had invested heavily in energy efficient cooling solutions during 2017-18. In the past few years, it has replaced air-conditioners with innovative cooling solutions like natural cooling, free cooling and solar powered cooling. In addition, it has added a new localised cooling solution, which has helped reduce the area or volume to be cooled. As a result of these innovative solutions, Indus has achieved a milestone of operating over 100,000 air-conditioner free sites. The efficient cooling equipment has helped in optimising the load at these sites, thereby reducing the dependence on diesel.

In the energy storage space, Indus has moved from normal lead acid batteries to advanced VRLA batteries and now it is using energy efficient Li-ion batteries. Indus has also installed a 5 kW methanol-based fuel cell system, Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC), at a site in Delhi. This has replaced a 15 kVA DG set, which was a major conventional back-up solution in telecom in India. The company has also successfully tested piped natural gas (PNG) generators in one business unit and is planning to deploy them across other units as the availability of the PNG pipeline network is increasing in various areas.

GTL Infrastructure

As of March 2018, GTL Infrastructure had a total of 7,875 diesel-free sites, of which 2,926 were operational as of March 31, 2018. The company has undertaken several measures such as conversion of indoor sites to outdoor ones, installation of emergency free cooling systems, improvement in the efficiency of grid-connected sites, and deployment of new technology equipment to increase power efficiency and integrated power management units for alternating current (AC) power line conditioning and AC to direct current (DC) conversion.

GTL Infrastructure has installed emergency free cooling systems to utilise the cool ambient temperatures and save the electrical energy consumption of air-conditioning systems. It has also installed high efficiency rectifiers with wide input voltage range switched mode power supply with minimum duration at lower input voltages and upgraded the DC power plants with compatible high efficiency rectifiers. The company is also assisting its telecom operator tenants in swapping their indoor BTSs with outdoor BTSs.

In addition, it has deployed alternative sources of energy such as deep discharge and Li-ion batteries for faster and optimum use of back-up power and small DC-type DGs at pilot sites.

Bharti Infratel

Bharti Infratel spent a total of Rs 194 million on energy conservation during 2017-18. The company had over 43,000 green sites as of December 2018. This milestone was achieved on the back of initiatives such as the Green Towers P7 programme and the zero emission network (ZEN) model.

Bharti Infratel launched the Green Towers P7 programme in 2011 with the aim of minimising the dependence on diesel and reducing the carbon footprint. Based on seven innovative clean energy technologies, the programme focuses on using renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency and reducing the power consumption. These initiatives have successfully reduced the company’s diesel consumption by more than half in the past six years. In the past two years, the company has reduced its diesel consumption by 25 per cent and made around 43 per cent of its sites diesel free.

On the other hand, the ZEN model focuses on reducing the company’s diesel consumption and carbon emissions through optimum energy utilisation, enhanced battery storage and installation of alternative energy sources at feasible sites.

During 2017-18, Bharti Infratel focused on making its sites fully outdoor by removing air-conditioners (which started in 2012). This enabled it to convert more than 70 per cent sites into outdoor sites. It also helped reduce energy cost and cut down the emission levels. Under this project, the company created a complete solution gamut including solar-based natural free cooling units, large-sized micro cooling cabinets, HEX-based micro cooling units, FCUs and NCUs.

ATC India

ATC India has been setting up captive hybrid solar systems at those sites where DGs run for longer durations. Initially, it will focus on off-grid towers with higher diesel usage. So far, solar panels averaging 4.4 kWp have been installed at more than 450 sites in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. The current total installed capacity of solar systems has now surpassed 2 MWp, which has significantly reduced the company’s carbon footprint.

Challenges and the way forward

While the industry has taken some commendable steps to reducing its diesel consumption and thereby its opex, only 25 per cent of the mobile towers in India run on renewable sources of energy. Moreover, the ongoing consolidation in the industry has affected tower companies with tenancy losses, reduced revenues and vacant towers. Another reason for the slowdown in the deployment of alternative sources of energy is the high initial capex requirement.

Challenges notwithstanding, energy management will remain a key focus area for sustainable operations in the longer run. In this scenario, government policies on tax incentives for superior battery technologies such as Li-ion would be a welcome step.

Going forward, improved grid availability and the right mix of storage solutions could help completely eliminate diesel from this industry.


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