Greening the machine

Dr Windsor Holden assesses the case for harnessing renewable energy to power mobile operations.

Tags: Base stationDrake and Scull InternationalHuawei Technologies CompanyJuniper ResearchUnited Arab Emirates
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Greening the machine
By  Dr Windsor Holden Published  October 23, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

The pressure on businesses to develop strategies which embrace environmental sustainability has increased dramatically in recent years, driven both by concerns about the long-term availability of fossil fuels and the impact of corporate activities upon the environment.

The result has been that governments have developed and implemented a series of directives aimed at obligating corporations to become more energy efficient, using “greener” energy and thereby reducing CO2 emissions.

Given both governmental and consumer pressure, many corporations have sought to be more proactive in their attempts to deliver products and services which do not adversely impact the environment.  For its part, the mobile industry is seeking to develop environmentally sustainable businesses, both in the network infrastructure and in the attendant business practices.

Mobile base stations account for the vast bulk of power consumption – and thus CO2 emissions – within the mobile network. With this in mind, network operators, and indeed infrastructure vendors, are focusing on two key means of reducing these emissions. The first, which is particularly effective for operators who are increasingly dependent on off-grid electricity, is to utilise renewable energy in place of diesel generators; the second is to address a series of existing inefficiencies within the network itself.

The depletion of fossil fuels, and the need to introduce environmentally sustainable business practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have led to operators, vendors, regulators and national governments to seek to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels and where possible replace them with solar energy, wind, pico-hydro power; biodiesel; and fuel cells.

Enhancing the Network

Regardless of the kind of energy used to power the networks, there is an increasing imperative upon network operators to reduce the energy inefficiency within the network. In terms of the various elements within the network, by far the most energy is consumed (and wasted) within the RBS (radio base station).

This is in large part due to traditional base station design. All base station equipment – including radio units - were either located indoors or within an outdoor RBS on the ground.  The radio units were in turn connected to the antenna via feeder cables, which in many cases could be tens of metres long.

As the cost of energy has increased, and as environmental concerns rose up operator agendas, these historical levels of power consumption and wastage have become perceived as unacceptable. This has been recognised by infrastructure vendors who for their part have sought means to reduce power consumption within the base station. There is an additional benefit to reducing energy wastage at this stage in the network: if combined 2G/3G stations can be reduced to, say, an output of 600W or below (effectively low-load) then off grid energy supplied by solar and wind power becomes a feasible means of supplying power, in turn sharply reducing a station’s CO2 emissions.

For an operator, perhaps the key reason for reducing energy wastage in the network is to reduce operating costs. The various methods outlined in this chapter – network planning, feederless sites, power management, etc – could combine to cut power consumption by more than 50%.

Three Scenarios

Juniper Research has developed a series of scenario-based forecasts highlighting both the environmental and economic costs associated with critical areas within the mobile network. The scenarios we envisage are outlined below:

• Incremental – assumes that operators and vendors will not be markedly proactive in pursuing green policies above and beyond delivering short/medium-term objectives outlined within current corporate social responsibility documentation. In developing markets, operators continue to be heavily reliant on diesel to power off-grid base stations.

• Progressive – assumes a more positive approach to the adoption of green strategies, including emphasis on selection of green energy suppliers for base station electricity and on greater efficiency within the network. Widespread usage of measures such as remote radio heads, AMR and natural convection at the base station. New off-grid base stations are predominantly based on renewable energy by the end of the forecast period.

• Transformational – wholehearted adoption of green policies. Strong emphasis placed on power reduction in the base station. Negligible usage of diesel in new build off-grid base stations, while existing stations are increasingly upgraded/adapted to run on renewable energy.

In developed markets, operators are also proactive in augmenting grid supplies with renewable energy.

Scenario Comparison

In 2008, total CO2 emissions from mobile base stations stood at just over 22Mt (Mega tonnes). Under the incremental scenario, whereby the continued growth in the global subscriber base is developing markets is still significantly dependent upon off-grid base stations utilising diesel; there is steady annual growth in emissions, with the total approaching 35Mt by 2014. Under the progressive scenario, sufficient steps are taken to slow this growth in emissions by 2012. Under the transformational scenario, whereby operators are extremely proactive at implementing green solutions in the base stations, there is a dramatic decline in emissions from 2010 onwards.

Dr Windsor Holden is Principal Analyst with Juniper Research.

Huawei’s Environmental concerns

Ihab Ghattas, assistant president, Middle East region, Huawei Technologies says that there are many areas that operators can look at to reduce their impact on the environment, including cutting power consumption and increasing use of renewable energy. However, he adds that other areas should not be overlooked, such as online billing to cut paper use, and recycling schemes for mobile devices.

“We try to reduce the size of the equipment and we try to come up with solutions,” he says. “We have hybrid and completely solar power cell sites which have been deployed in a couple of countries but generally speaking the idea is to try to use the technology to minimize consumption in every part of the process,” he says.

But Ghattas thinks most operators could do more to make their operations more environmentally friendly. “It is part of the social responsibility on both sides to make sure that the network deployments are going in that direction.

There are also others related to it such as cost and capex. Until the operator finds a balance of these factors, I don’t think we will see a push for it. “Maybe what needs to be done here is to increase awareness of the economical side of it as well as the environmental side.”

By CommsMEA staff

Cost Cutting

Drake & Scull International is one company that is planning to tap the growing demand for green base stations. Nick Di Marcello, general manager for the telecommunications division for DSI Infrastructure, Water & Power, said his company is developing a renewable energy power solution for operators.

While the company has not yet revealed all details of the product, Di Marcello says it will allow operators to harness solar energy and wind power, in some cases combining it with traditional diesel powered generators, depending on their requirements. “I don’t think there is one common solution for each country or customer because they each have different business drivers and conditions, some being more suited to wind and others to sun. Dependant on the site configuration it may be necessary to use a combination including the use of traditional generators as a standby source.

“Pure solar solutions, whilst possible, are in many cases not cost efficient due to the power output and standby requirements. The ideal scenario is to engineer a hybrid solution which balances out cost against efficiency,” he says. DSI sees growing demand from operators looking to cut their operating expenses and cut their carbon foot print. Furthermore, operators with cell sites in remote areas often see a strong case for renewable power, which compares favourably with the cost of transporting diesel to difficult-to-reach places.

DSI established its telecoms division to build telecoms infrastructure for operators and vendors. Di Marcello says he sees operators and vendors as the company’s main customer bases, as well as governments on private networks.

By CommsMEA staff

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