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Renewable Energy for Remote Telecom

This is solar-powered base station on top of a mountain in Lapland (Finland).

Remote ICT infrastructures are embracing renewable energy for everything from earthquake mitigation in Japan. CO2e reduction in India to . Fuel/power costs appear to have gone down since 2009 for off-grid mobile operations, but are still significant. Asia leads world in current renewable base stations and in growth potential. One operator - Indus Towers - now has 20,000 zero-diesel sites.

The Big Picture

GSMA's Green Power For Mobile 2014 report put the inventory of off-grid mobile towers at 320,000. Add to that 701,000 'bad-grid' sites and there are over 1 million towers needing local on-site energy sources. Over 90% of this generation capacity is supplied by diesel.

The IEEE's GreenCom'09 conference noted: "The radio access network accounts for 80% of [cellular networks infrastructure] energy consumption. In developing countries, operators now spent more than half of their OPEX only for the diesel required to keep base station generators up and running. Increasing the energy efficiency of base stations has thus become a key challenge of mobile networks operators."

The New York Times offered an only slightly lower number in September 2013 for regions with largely off-grid infrastructure: "...fuel and power eat up 40 percent of a mobile network operator’s cost."

What are the prospects for a significant move from diesel toward renewables?

Pike Research forecasted in July 2010 that "renewable energy will power 4.5% of the world’s mobile base stations by 2014, up from just 0.11% in 2010. In developing countries, the percentage will be even higher...8% of base stations in those regions will utilize renewable power by 2014. 'Energy is one of the top expense items for mobile network operators,' says managing director Clint Wheelock. 'As solar and wind equipment become more cost-effective in the next few years, renewable energy will be an increasingly attractive option for base station power, in combination with batteries and fuel cells.' Wheelock adds that the economics of renewable energy are already favorable in remote off-grid areas where the fully-loaded cost of delivering diesel to generators is high."

A 2010 discussion of wind-powered base stations says, "The GSMA estimates a need for nearly 639 thousand off-grid base stations in emerging markets by 2012; they hope to have 118 thousand of these powered with renewable energy." This would represent ~18% using renewables.

Navigant Research forecasted in June 2013 that "revenue from off-grid power for mobile base stations will reach $10.5 billion by 2020." "Driven by rising energy costs and government policy initiatives, the market for “green base stations” for mobile telecommunications networks is gaining significant traction. These base transceiver stations, which use a combination of renewable energy, battery, and fuel cell technologies, could become much more prevalent within 10 years…That growth will be achievable only if companies can produce systems, at volume, that work in the local environment…Often this means installing systems that rely on a combination of technologies to provide power, such as renewable energy plus a backup battery, or renewable energy plus a battery plus a fuel cell that provides trickle-charging to the battery, significantly extending the runtime of the battery."

Mobile and Development Intelligence (MDI) publishes a table of counts by country for those base stations powered entirely or in part by renewables. Asian countries dominated in 2011; leaders are China (7795), India (901), and Cambodia (862). All told, Asia has 88% of the 11,700+ renewable-powered base stations tracked by MDI.

Energy and operational costs are not the only upside of moving away from diesel. Anil Trehan, Chief Technical Officer at Andrew Solutions, is quoted in, “In developing countries in Asia for example, traditional diesel-powered generators are often the target of thieves who steal diesel fuel in order to sell them in the black market. The result of such actions is a network that is unreliable as you can never be sure that your backup power source will be available. Using alternative fuels lower the risks of pilferage [and increases reliability].”

The bottom line is not good for green. It appears that less that 2% of off-grid/bad-grid base stations are powered by renewables. The total growth in base stations is outstripping the conversions to renewables.


We first noted Indus Towers, the Indian company that is the world's largest telecom tower company, as the winner of the 2013 GSMA Green Mobile Award. The award citation noted that the company operated 17,500 green sites at the time. Now Indus Towers reports that it has "...20,000 green sites where Zero diesel is used...As of 31st March 2013 [these sites comprised] 20% of Indus’ portfolio of towers..." The company notes other innovations. "By installing Free Cooling Units, we allow heat transfer between the ambient and shelter when the temperature is low (winters and night time). This heat transfer results in reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions. 15000 FCUs have been installed so far. Additionally, 2500 sites have Smart Battery charging solutions for faster charging, leading to energy savings." Where diesel is needed, "The use of DC Diesel Generators results in operating expense savings as high as 40%."

Zero-deisel does not necessarily mean zero-carbon. Voice & Data magazine reportsthat many of these Indus sites are "relying just on grid power and other non-polluting backup sources" but that the company has "deployed 900 solar sites in the country." The magazine also says, "With this initiative, diesel purchase for the company has come down by 15 percent whereas revenue has gone up by 35 percent."

Indus Towers cites these benefits: "The Indus Towers Green Sites Project has translated into direct financial gains for all stakeholders. In the Indian telecom infrastructure industry, energy costs are almost 50% of the total operating cost of a site. Hence benefits are derived over the long term by eliminating the use of diesel. It has enabled the average consumer in a particular locality to use a mobile network that runs on greener energy. It has also given an impetus to the equipment manufacturers to develop green telecom technology. This initiative has improved the image of the telecom industry as being socially responsible and environment friendly. But most importantly, it has reduced India’s carbon footprint."

Africa Seer reports in January 2012 that Airtel Nigeria has inked an agreement with Ericsson "to upgrade 250 diesel powered stations across the country. The capacity building initiative would enable the company to harness solar and wind energy for the operation of its base stations." The article describes this as "the first of its kind in Nigeria." Statistics in the article imply that Airtel will be deploying conventional gen sets faster than renewable ones, so the company has not yet reached a 'green tipping point'.

A related challenge with ICT in developing countries is the availablity of sustainable charge stations for users' e-gear. Mark Kragh of UK solar installer KnowYourPlanet is using recycled reject solar panels to address this problem. The BBC reports, "For many in Africa there is little access to electricity due to mains power shortages. Infrastructure has not kept pace with the explosion in mobile phone ownership so it is not unusual for people to walk for several hours just to charge their phones. 'Often, charge points are driven by petrol or diesel generators, which are dangerous to operate and of course emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants…,' said Mr Kragh." Watch a video about how it is done.

GSMA launched its Green Power for Mobile (GPM) Programme in September 2008 to extend mobile beyond the grid through the promotion of renewable energy technologies and energy efficient base stations. Its goal was to help "the mobile industry use renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind or sustainable biofuels, to power 118,000 new and existing off-grid base stations in developing countries by 2012…In doing so, an estimated 2.5 billion litres of diesel per annum would be saved and annual carbon emissions would be cut by up to 6.8 million tonnes." GPM was tracking over 29,000 deployments as of November 2012. Despite that being only ~25% of goal, the GPM team remains confident about the future. "Recent technological improvements and cost reductions in green power solutions have made this alternative more commercially attractive. Coupled with the environmental benefits of reduced diesel use and subsequent emissions, green power solutions provide a promising opportunity for operators." View details and an interactive deployment viewer.

CNET reported in January 2011, "The high-powered schmoozing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has yielded a project to install solar-powered cell phone towers in India. Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL) and lithium ion battery maker Boston Power today announced that VNL will test the small-scale telecom stations with Boston Power's batteries. VNL had originally developed the system with lead acid batteries. ...The Boston Power batteries can power the tower, which can be set up in half a day, for up to three days without sunlight."

Role for Wind?

Efforts to reduce base station emissions with renewable energy have focused on solar. Adoption of wind power has been slower. Ericsson announced its wind-powered Tower Tube in 2008 We've asked the company to update us deployments.

GSMA & Green Telecom
Use of renewables-driven microgrids

Photo by Matti Paavola under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.