Greener networks

Companies from all parts of the telecoms sector are waking up to the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable power sources, but costs may remain a barrier to adoption in the short term.

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By  Roger Field Published  February 14, 2009

Companies from all parts of the telecoms sector are waking up to the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable power sources, but costs may remain a barrier to adoption in the short term.

While the cost of oil may have dropped to levels that industry could barely imagine in mid-2008, when prices hit US$140 a barrel, energy remains a significant cost for mobile operators which typically use grid electricity or diesel generators to power energy hungry base-stations.

And the threat of a return to such expensive energy, combined with increasing competition and a need for greater operational efficiency - particularly amid the global economic downturn - is leading operators and vendors to look closely at energy efficiency and renewable energy sources for base stations and other essential network operations.

For Christian Bartosch, head of services for MEA, Nokia Siemens Networks, last year's oil spike certainly served as a catalyst that increased interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy among operators. It also served to make a far better business case for technologies that have often appeared prohibitively expensive at face value.

"Some operators were looking at their energy bills and they were just going through the sky. Rural sites that usually run on locally generated energy because they are too far from the utility grid suddenly became very expensive to run and the business plan didn't work any more," he says.

While energy prices have retreated along with global economic growth, the need for alternate energy sources and greater energy efficiency has now registered with operators in the region, particularly those with base stations in more remote areas that require their own energy source.

Bartosch says he has seen a steady rise in operator interest in energy efficient base stations in the region, with environmental responsibility and cost savings both helping to bring about change.

"It seems that a lot of operators have realised that green credentials also means lower opex in terms of fuel," he says. "Operators have clearly found that there is a beneficial relationship between being green and working with a vendor such as NSN to provide low carbon emission equipment."

Greening the machine

The problem with traditional base stations is that they use power-hungry air conditioning systems and are usually powered by fossil fuels, whether through the grid or a local diesel generator, depending on the location of the base station.

For remote, diesel powered base stations there is another environmental and cost consideration to take into account. Besides the pollution arising from the diesel used to power the base stations, operators also need to consider the effects of getting the fuel to the site in the first place, according to Bartosch.

"For some operators in Africa in particular, the diesel needs to be transported through some of the most pristine landscape and nature, which means there is a big environmental impact just getting this stuff there. This is one of the areas where operators are working with us to become much greener," he says.

There are numerous technologies available to operators looking for energy efficient base stations, with most of the main vendors offering green technologies. And the cost savings for operators, and the environmental benefits, can be huge.

Bartosch says NSN has experienced steadily growing demand for its energy efficient base stations, hybrid base stations which use a combination of diesel and renewable energy, and its flexi base stations, which are mounted on a pole outdoors, removing the need for air conditioning altogether.

The flexi base stations also bring other benefits. By being mounted higher up on a pole, they offer greater security and also give better coverage, which in turn also leads to greater efficiency.

Bartosch says energy savings of between 30% and 50% can be achieved on typical deployments of flexi and hybrid base stations, which can lead to a return-on-investment of about 18 months to two years.

But the initial cost of energy efficient base stations is significant. Bartosch puts the average cost of an NSN base station with best in class energy efficient generator at about EUR50,000 (US$66,400) per site. A solar and diesel hybrid generator has a factory price of about EUR65,000. "If you have 1000 sites, then it becomes very expensive, but if you only have a few sites, it is not that significant," he says.

The best selling technology at the moment for NSN in the region is the standard energy efficient base station, which requires housing and air conditioning, but is smaller and more efficient compared with mainstream versions. Meanwhile, demand for the flexi base station is also rising.

In the Middle East, NSN has already rolled out about 2000 of its flexi sites in the Middle East, with 1,200 of those in Saudi Arabia, according to Bartosch.

Another important aspect of reducing energy use from network operations is to manage the power consumption more effectively, so that systems consume less energy when less power is needed.

To this end, Bartosch says that NSN has an "intelligent" network operating system called NetAct, which allows the operator to adjust the power utilisation according to the traffic.

"During night time you can turn off certain sectors of the base station in order to reduce energy consumption or you can really drive this thing in line with the actual traffic demand. Parts of the station not being heavily used turn off automatically."

GSMA’s push for green

Global trade association, GSMA, recently launched the Green Power for Mobile programme, which aims to help the mobile industry use renewable energy sources such as solar and wind to power 118,000 new and existing off-grid base stations in developing countries by 2012.

Furthermore, the association forecasts that by 2012 up to 50% of new off-grid base stations in the developing world could be powered by renewable energy. GSMA research conducted with mobile operators indicated that only 1,500 base stations worldwide are powered by at least one form of renewable energy at present.

The GSMA Development Fund is already working with several mobile operators including Digicel to power 17 new base stations on the Pacific island of Vanuatu with renewable energy sources as well as Bharti, Orange, MTC, MTN, Safaricom, Telefonica and Vodafone among others.

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