Saving the planet can save you money

Saving the planet can save you money

Technical Review Middle East - Issue Three 2009 Power 60 IN THE PRESENT economic climate the fact that renewable energy can cut pollution levels may not be enough. As Phil Desmond discovers, some recent innovations in the field of cellular communications are being promoted not just as being better for the environment than conventional fuels but better for business too.

Despite continuing drives to promote the use of clean energy, sales of solar and wind power equipment and services are by no means soaring. One obvious reason is that financial institutions - sources of funding for the installation of wind turbines and solar arrays - are less keen to lend than before. Cost savings It seems to be an ideal time therefore to demonstrate that renewable energy can offer an attractive business model - and that was the theme of a number of exhibits at the recent Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest mobile communications-focused trade show. The selling point, in many cases, was direct cost savings.

Take the Indian company VNL. The promise of its solarpowered GSM network for rural areas is zero operating expenditure. When a network is being extended to areas where average revenue per user is less than US$2 a month, that could be the difference between profit and loss. Using solar power can reduce or even remove the network’s need for diesel fuel, not to mention the costs (transport, maintenance and extra manpower) associated with the use of diesel. However, a few adjustments have been required. Anil Raj, CEO of the company, explains: “GSM is a 15-year old technology but we’ve applied today’s components - the level of sophistication available today to ensure power efficiency - and, more importantly, made some engineering compromises to allow us to get large wins in terms of power consumption, most notably on data speeds.” He continues: “This is optimised for services that are relevant to the rural market and that they can afford to pay.” Environment What this means in practice is that many mobile phone users in very isolated areas don’t require - for example - the sort of internet or email connectivity that urban Blackberry users need.

If data isn’t enabled, power costs go down and a solar-powered base station is rendered viable. And of course it’s good for the environment. As Raj points out: “Last year all the mobile networks in India consumed upwards of two billion litres of diesel.” A lot more than that amount will be required if estimates of well over another billion mobile subscribers worldwide in the next three years are correct; that’s about 150,000 new base stations a year. And most of them won’t be in New York, Paris or Riyadh. In fact some 70 per cent are likely to be in places with little or no access to the power grid. More reliable They won’t just require power for the base station itself; the whole site will need power to run cooling, lighting, heating and associated functions.

That too could be done with diesel but, as James Kan, marketing manager with Swedish company Flexenclosure, points out, the CO2 produced would be the annual equivalent of a year’s car emissions across London. As Flexenclosure’s name implies, it’s in the business of housing equipment. The promise of its solar-powered GSM network for rural areas is zero operating expenditure. Saving the planet can save you money The Middle East would seem to be a natural market for solar power, and renewable energy can still offer an attractive business model, particularly in IT.

“When you put up a base station in a rough environment,” says Kan, “it’s raining, or humid, or hot or cold. You need something to put it in. You also need a tower to have your antenna on.” And, he says, “a major challenge in the telecom industry for operators to maintain profitability is to reduce the site-related operational expenses.” Running a site on solar and wind power - albeit with diesel in reserve in case of breakdown - is potentially cheaper, more reliable and less polluting than transporting, maintaining and topping up diesel fuel. However, you do need is the right type of weather. Luckily, most future cellular growth markets tend to offer this. They will be, says, Kan, “in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America.”

They will also be the more remote areas of those countries. Separate intelligence Hence Flexenclosure’s E-site, specially designed for areas on or near the earth’s sun-belt (the equator plus or minus 30 degrees). The solar component is quite straightforward, says Kan. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; solar panels today are commodities.” However, a wind generator that can work with as little as 2.2 metres of wind a second isn’t. So the company designed its own. Mounted on the base station tower, it has a diameter across the two blades of about ten metres, uses carbon fibre rather than glass fibre, and includes technology that allows it to ‘brake’ when the wind is too high; ironically, its efficiency means leaving it on all the time could provide too much energy to a shelter. The other addition is a separate intelligence called Diriflex. This ‘learns’ conditions - when traffic will peak and when the sun will go down for instance - and makes decisions on that basis. For example, the E-site does not offer power storage facilities as that adds equipment and expense. When there’s no sun the system switches to wind.

Should you turn off wind energy when it’s available simply because the batteries are fully charged? Why not use that energy to pre-cool the batteries in advance of peak demand? “Taking these small intelligent decisions we can reduce opex - the wear and tear on your equipment - and avoid using diesel but also use wind while it’s there,” says Kan, adding: “This means cost savings.” However, he argues, for this approach to work there has to be the type of managing intelligence that Diriflex can offer. Past efforts that simply placed renewable power generation equipment in remote areas were less efficient and cost-effective. Successful trial There are smaller-scale approaches too. For example, Sweden’s Suntrica is offering portable solar phone chargers. The advances that have brought flexible thin film panels have made the concept much more viable and thus applicable to the 600mn cellular users worldwide who have insufficient charging facilities.

“If you’re living plus or minus 30 degrees from the equator, it’s one sunshine day and you have a full charge,” says Suntrica CEO Jouko Häyrynen. The Mobile World Congress even brought us solar-powered phones, one in particular aimed at low-income markets. Made by China’s ZTE in partnership with Dutch solar technology specialist Intivation, it will see its first commercial use in the Pacific Islands. These initiatives may or may not succeed.

Flexenclosure, for example, has had a successful trial of its technology in Kenya but has not yet gone commercial with it. It needs partnerships and agreements with operators and base station providers like Ericsson or Huawei to make the system pay. However, if these initiatives do take off it will only be in part because they are good for the environment. All four offer the possibility of increased earnings for operators, and in an economic downturn that is likely to be the biggest attraction of all.

Alain Charles Publishing, University House, 11-13 Lower Grosvenor Place, London, SW1W 0EX, UK
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