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Energy Management: A key challenge for tower companies

October 31, 2012
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Energy management remains a key area of concern for telecom tower companies. Poor and unpredictable grid availability has led operators to opt for diesel-based solutions, which, besides being expensive, result in high carbon dioxide emissions. The industry has been working towards adopting green solutions and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendations on green telecom are a step in the right direction. Industry experts share their views on the energy requirements of the sector, and the issues and opportunities in adopting green energy solutions…


What are your views on managing the growing energy needs of the telecom sector?

Naresh Ajwani

The power sector, with a penetration of 33 per cent, is supporting the telecom industry, which has a penetration of 70 per cent. In this scenario, the government’s concerns about reducing emissions are justified and the industry completely agrees with it. However, promoting particular technologies, in this case renewables, is not very plausible. The government must set targets for reducing emissions and let the tower companies select a suitable option.

Today, high capex poses a major challenge for the industry. Moreover, with the emergence of renewable energy solutions, there will be a need for energy experts to assist in the deployment of these solutions. Optimising opex should be the way forward. The industry broadly agrees on a pay-per-use model for renewable solutions.

Shyam Iyer

Infrastructure providers face several issues pertaining to energy management. However, the biggest issue will be to bridge the gap between the expectations of various stakeholders and the delivery mechanism. Tower companies face the twin challenges of meeting 24x7 connectivity demands and the need to optimise costs on the business side. Ensuring this would require continuous energy flow at tower sites.

Several initiatives are being considered for adopting green energy solutions, achieving cost optimisation and reducing the dependence on fuels. The industry is working on initiatives at two broad levels – technology and administrative. A tower company can opt for a technology that offers substantial though short-term returns at low investments, or deploy an expensive solution for long-term returns. On the administrative front, frequent monitoring must be undertaken at the ground level.

The telecom industry has aggressively taken administrative initiatives. We undertake continuous monitoring, which provides insights into the locational aspects of sites. The next set of initiatives will be taken on the technology front. These include low-cost solutions with fast implementation cycles like storage devices, free cooling units and conversion of indoor sites into outdoor ones. Moreover, we are bullish about the renewable energy service company model.

However, there are issues that need to be addressed to reduce the effort, time and cost for tower companies and help them in taking new initiatives. These include localised challenges that the companies face from time to time such as unpredictable grid power availability and environmental challenges.

Sairam Prasad

Energy management is a three-dimensional process, which must result in reducing consumption. The first dimension is to  reduce the carbon footprint and the load on electrical equipment and power generating systems. The second dimension is to improve efficiency. At present, the majority of the telecom equipment operates on direct current (DC) power, but electricity is generated in alternating current (AC) mode. This implies conversion losses while moving from AC to DC. The third dimension is the replacement of conventional energy sources with alternative sources.

Over the past decade, the telecom industry has made efforts to reduce the load on and improve the energy efficiency of equipment. It has moved from using exclusively indoor base transceiver station sites to a mix of indoor and outdoor sites (helps in avoiding air-conditioning), which reduces the load at a telecom site by 30 per cent. Moreover, there has been a growing trend of infrastructure sharing in the past four-five years.  In fact, currently there is no exclusive site for a single operator. Sharing has become a norm and all sites are used by multiple tenants. Infrastructure sharing results in a 25 per cent reduction in energy consumption in a two-tenant scenario.

Also, significant efforts have been made towards improving energy efficiency. Traditionally, the industry deployed 15 kVA generator sets with a load factor of 25-30 per cent, whereas today most generator sets have a capacity of 7.5 kVA and a load factor of above 50 per cent (60-70 per cent in some cases). Other improvements include the introduction of integrated power management systems, which offer efficiencies of 95 per cent in rectification and other electrical products. Besides, generator sets have become highly efficient. Variable speed DC generators produce energy at different rates, which helps in reducing fuel consumption.

So far, a significant reduction in energy consumption has been achieved by the industry through the aforementioned initiatives. We have been able to take these initiatives effectively as they were within the realm of our expertise. However, for the third dimension of energy management, which involves the use of alternative energy sources, the industry requires support from the energy sector as the telecom industry does not have the expertise in this area. Therefore, we will have to depend on an external ecosystem and there is a need for greater collaboration between the telecom and energy sectors including the renewable energy segment. The telecom tower industry, along with TRAI and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, is working towards developing a sustainable, and commercially and technically viable renewable energy model. Also, remote monitoring of sites should be undertaken irrespective of the technology in use.  It is not practical to deploy people at all sites for monitoring on a daily basis. Several remote monitoring solutions are available and new innovative solutions are emerging.

What are your views on TRAI’s recommendations on green telecom? What is the acceptance level among industry players?

Naresh Ajwani

The industry took the renewable route well before TRAI’s recommendations came out. The authority should not have explicitly defined the green way for us, rather it should have left it open for the industry to adopt green initiatives. We have already started working on declaring the carbon dioxide emission levels at our sites, which is in compliance with the Department of Telecommunications’ mandate. However, there are some concerns regarding TRAI’s proposed formula for assessing the carbon footprint of sites.

Shyam Iyer

Adopting environment-friendly practices and solutions is the need of the hour, and we support the government in reducing emission levels. However, one thing that is clearly lacking is a delivery mechanism to support such initiatives. Looking at the investment requirements as well as the shared capacity of the players that are expected to provide these solutions, this does not appear to be a very practical solution.

Sairam Prasad

It is the common objective of all stakeholders – the tower companies and the government – to reduce the carbon footprint because we all are aware of the associated advantages and disadvantages. In particular, diesel usage reduction will be a key achievement considering the several issues related to use of the fuel – diesel needs to be transported, managed and secured, and is an expensive option for site operations. Therefore, any initiative aimed at reducing our dependence on the fuel is welcome. TRAI’s recommendation in this regard is a positive step; however, it does not provide clarity on the delivery mechanism. TRAI has recommended a structured mechanism for assessing and reporting the carbon footprint of sites, which is a positive step. Therefore, we now have a framework in place to measure the carbon footprint in a more systematic manner.

What is the most promising renewable energy technology for the Indian telecom sector?

Naresh Ajwani

Any technology that is technically and commercially viable is acceptable.

Shyam Iyer

Given the high resource availability, solar energy in hybrid systems with an efficient storage technology is a suitable option.

Sairam Prasad

Solar, biomass and fuel cells are technically viable technologies for telecom sites, but their commercial viability is yet to be established. Moreover, using alternative energy sources implies replacing diesel at a site, which is not always an economically sound option. Therefore, most tower companies are also focusing on diesel use reduction, and are looking at energy storage technology and various generator set models to improve efficiency.

Solar power is one of the promising renewable energy technologies that can be utilised for telecom networks and is already being used by various companies including Bharti Infratel. However, the solution has its own set of challenges as the ecosystem is not fully developed. For instance, it involves high space and maintenance requirements. However, the cost of solar panels has dropped in India in the past year.

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