opinion


The green solutions driving reliable mobile connectivity

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece GenCell CEO Rami Reshef takes a looks at some of the renewable energy options gaining favour among telcos.

The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced what we already knew – telecoms and digital connectivity play an indispensable role in today’s world. Not only do communications networks provide high-priority service to emergency services, but they have been crucial to enabling remote work, remote learning and e-commerce, which have become the primary methods for businesses, communities and individuals to practice social distancing and follow work-at-home restrictions.

What isn’t discussed as commonly is that this connectivity is entirely dependent on electricity to power the network equipment and devices, we use to stay connected.

Many mobile telecoms providers run multiple networks in parallel – 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G – which uses a lot of power. In fact, energy remains one of the largest OPEX-related expenses for telecoms providers. According to Huawei, the power consumption of 5G hardware is between two and four times greater than 4G. Supplying this power is problematic in the context of the world’s crucial transition away from fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

Telecoms combats climate change

The mobile telecoms industry has made concerted efforts to work towards resolving the global climate emergency, with leading service providers supporting a key GSMA initiative around climate impact disclosures, which measures environmental impact and promotes sustainability in every aspect of their operations.

Aiming both to meet their public commitments to policy makers and to their customers to support climate action, as well as to reduce operating expenses, telecom providers are working hard to transition to renewable energy sources. Vodafone, for example, recently announced that it is planning on reducing the company’s total global carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2040, in line with the ambitious goals of the Paris Climate agreement. Other major telecoms providers are now also creating ambition carbon emission reduction goals.

Renewable Energy Options

Some telecoms providers are now turning to solar and wind power to deliver green energy. While emission-free, these solutions have relatively high CAPEX to install and require rather intensive maintenance and servicing. As they are intermittent – in certain conditions they are not able to generate power – for constant connectivity another power generation or storage source is needed, often supplied by batteries.

Offering limited power duration, batteries require cooling and ventilation, are space-intensive, are problematic to recharge as they get older and require proper disposal at end of life. Solar panels, wind turbines and batteries are theft and vandal-prone, posing a major pain for remote telecom providers that need to frequently fix and replace equipment, parts, and even stolen fuel.

The telecoms industry is now finding that hydrogen fuel cells can provide a complementary or substitute solution. To date, numerous hydrogen fuel cells have been deployed to back up network equipment and data processing centers. As the hydrogen economy expands and the price of hydrogen falls, more telecom hub and data center operators are turning to hydrogen and fuel cells to reduce emissions, achieve energy independence and meet their voracious power requirements.

For example, in response to the wildfires in California, AT&Ts vice president of radio access network construction Jeff Luong indicated that AT&T is looking at hydrogen fuel and solar as alternative power sources as part of an investment plan sparked when PG&E Corp. and other electric companies proactively cut power to wildfire danger zones.

A related trend is that of hybrid systems incorporating several types of renewable energy:

  1. a) Solar or wind that produce clean energy
  2. b) Solar and wind which is used to run electrolyzers to produce green hydrogen
  3. c) Fuel cells to generate power from that hydrogen.

Hybrid systems are a completely independent and emission-free circular energy source that can power cell towers. Telecom providers are also players in the changing energy market in which they have become prosumers that both produce and consume energy services; in today’s Distributed Energy Resources (DER) model, telcos can own fuel cells and other renewable energy resources and sell surplus generation to utilities.

Powering remote and rural telecoms

In remote and rural areas, where power is an especially large proportion of telecom operators’ operating expenses, fuel cells have had significant traction. Going forward, smart agriculture applications may demand improved connectivity in these regions. Where centralized grids in remote or rural areas are often not economically feasible, hydrogen provides an alternative to the traditional yet pollutant solution – diesel generators.

Specific challenges for powering cell towers in remote rural conditions include tough climate conditions like extreme heat and cold, storms and droughts as well as challenges of access due to distance and rough terrain.

Moreover, often in remote telecom sites there is a strong security issue and frequent occurrences of theft and vandalism. Requiring minimal servicing, low maintenance, able to withstand severe weather conditions and offering lifetimes of fifteen years or more, fuel cells are relatively theft-averse, tamper-proof and supply power for as long as fuel is available. With increasing interest in hydrogen as an efficient method to decarbonize various industry sectors, more telecom providers are looking to include hydrogen and fuel cells in their energy mix.

Mobile operators are increasing efforts to minimize climate impact on their networks, take advantage of incentives and comply with regulations by improving energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy resources. With climate change bringing more frequent severe weather incidents that cause grid outages, operators are investing in adapting mobile networks to become more resilient in order to ensure connectivity, access to information and coordination of assistance through emergencies and disasters.

Facing these multiple challenges is no easy task. However, the availability of new technologies and solutions that optimally combine renewable energy sources in hybrid systems, incorporating hydrogen-based long-duration backup power, gives mobile operators more reliable and greener power options.

 

Rami Reshef is the CEO at GenCell, a leading provider of hydrogen fuel cells. Rami has proven executive management track record and over 25 years of experience driving growth in the technology industry. He has founded a number of start-ups, with solutions for mobile, social networking and virtual reality.


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