How the telecom sector is turning to renewable energy to keep India connected.

If it hadn't been for the diesel generators powering telecom towers, the July 2012 blackout, the largest power outage in history would have had a more profound impact on 620 million Indians. While half of India's population did not have power, they stayed connected virtually, thanks to their mobile phones. The world media lambasted the state of affairs of India’s power sector and congratulated the unwavering spirit of India’s telecom networks. However, this tale has a darker side to it.

The situation

Globally, 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity according to the International Energy Agency and some reports indicate that about 400 million of these deprived people are in India. Energy has a direct relationship with development. Increasingly, energy security is becoming fundamental to national security and so is telecommunications for our country’s socio-economic well-being. Our mobile services’ unique user base of 700 million is next only to China, due to its sheer speed and scale. Often unnoticed, about 4 lakh telecom towers are keeping the world’s second largest, and perhaps the fastest growing telecom market, connected.

Towering high

The telecom towers, familiar structures omnipresent irrespective of terrain, have a story of their own that’s as illustrious as the Indian mobile revolution. India has been a pioneer of telecom infrastructure sharing that has made mobile telephony services affordable to millions and has made it ubiquitous across our vast nation. But behind the euphoria of rural markets and surge in data consumption driving the next phase of growth for the telecom industry, there lies a depressing truth. Instead of receiving assured and reliable grid power, the telecom towers depend on diesel generators, seldom as backup but often even as the primary energy source.

The telecom sector consumes around 2 billion litres of diesel in a year and this figure is close to about 2 per cent of India’s total diesel consumption. Give a choice, telecom tower companies would instantly do away with diesel use and so would the operators. Diesel is expensive to purchase, transfer and store. It is also prone to pilferage and leaves an avoidable carbon footprint. Yet, the industry is dependent on it as the lack of grid power has compelled almost 60-70 per cent telecom towers to run on diesel. The diesel price deregulation has also added to the industry woes as the energy cost will escalate further.

The disparity between urban and rural coverage and connections can partially be attributed to the unreliability of grid power in the country. Reports suggest that about 80 per cent of telecom towers are connected to the grid but in practicality only a few hours of electricity is obtained from the grid (if at all), thus leaving the diesel generators to ensure uninterrupted power.

According to a GSMA report, over 40 per cent of the so-called unreliable sites lack grid electricity for more than 16 hours per day.

The telecom industry has adopted a forward-looking perspective that is green in vision. Last December, the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association in a proactive move to encourage renewable energy service companies issued letter of intents to setup renewable energy plants near the tower sites with the intention of converting 10 per cent of all towers in India from diesel to renewable energy in the near future.

The clearly visible policy push is to move the industry towards renewable energy. This January, the Department of Telecom issued directions to service providers to frame a carbon credit policy detailing methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the directive, at least 50 per cent of all the towers in rural areas and 20 per cent of the urban towers are to be powered by hybrid power (renewable and grid connected) by 2015, and further that 75 per cent of rural towers and 33 per cent of the urban towers are to be powered by hybrid power by 2020. This is in harmony with the objectives of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, which is targeting the installation of 20GW of solar generation by 2022, a percentage age of which to be installed in the telecom tower sector. With the right policy mix, these objectives can be met. The Centre for Science and Environment suggests building grid-interactive mini-power plants that are funded through a feed-in tariff paid through the National Clean Energy Fund. They also suggest providing low-interest loans to companies and mandate domestic equipment procurement. And it is not just solar power, wind, hydrogen fuel cells and bio-energy can be viable options for the telecom tower industry as well.

Tech solutions

Alongside renewable energy, technological solutions are evolving too. New base stations, especially efficient outdoor stations are commercial realities that function on lower power and optimal capacity that translate into reduced power consumption. Such technological advancements are making single cell sites more economical for telecom tower companies and operators to deploy in remote and underserved areas.

The telecom towers going green would mean a cleaner environment and improved bottom-line for the whole sector. A balanced approach bringing both the private sector and the government bodies together, supported by congenial policies can catalyse the paradigm shift towards green.

(The writer is the Chief Executive Officer of Viom Networks. The views expressed are his own.)

(This article was published on March 7, 2013)
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