Solar powered telecom towers: A Reality Check - India Renewable Energy Consulting – Solar, Biomass, Wind, Cleantech
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When I think of the off grid solar applications, one main sector that has tremendous captive power requirement is telecommunications. With consistent fall in the average revenue per user and a whopping 86% increase in the minutes of usage in the past decade, India is one of the countries with increasing market competition and highest number of MoU’s. The numbers of operators have almost tripled in the last 3 years and there is a mad headed competition to reduce the cost especially if the services have to be made affordable to the sub urban and rural areas. Rural teledensity improvement is possible only with low cost service.

With power contributing to 25% of total network cost, one of the key areas where the telecom providers are looking forward to reduce cost is energy. Unfortunately, poor quality of grid supply in suburban and semi-rural areas and no grid supply at many rural areas is increasing the energy cost for the telecom providers. 10% of telecom towers in India have no power supply while almost 50% have less than 12 hours of grid supply. Even in those 12 hours of grid supply there are problems of low voltage, single phasing and fluctuations that necessitate the use of diesel genset round the clock. The increasing energy cost, uncertain grid power and lower affordability of rural people is having a double warming effect to the telecom service providers.

According to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Close to 300000 towers in India consume more than 2 billion liters of Diesel every year generating 5.4 million Tons of CO2. The increasing diesel prices and the mounting pressure of minimizing carbon offset makes diesel based captive power a less viable option in long run. Solar PV based captive power would be the ideal solution for the telecom service providers. They have many advantages that would favor them for incorporating solar energy to power their towers.

Huge energy savings are possible by use of Solar Diesel hybrid (65% savings) as compared to relatively less savings by use of biomass power (29% savings). Also there is a possible 40% reduction in site maintenance expenditure for the companies who install solar as compared to the use of diesel genset. With the use of batteries it is even possible to power the towers during the night time and effective diesel usage hours can be reduced to as low as 8 hours per day.

The huge existing tower base that require captive power and further network expansion by service providers who promise to offer seamless network coverage makes it easy for solar to penetrate into the telecom industry very soon. Most of the towers that need off grid power are located at a place where there are no space limitations and this makes solar PV as an ideal choice. Also, network uptime can be managed in difficult hilly and terrain regions with the use of solar power.

The telecom towers are also expected to scale up by another one lakh next year and it is important to note that the newer telephone towers are being installed based on a new technology that will consume less power and also do away with the air conditioning so critical to the telephone towers. For the newer towers, where air conditioning is not a requisite, it makes more sense to use solar power, especially where the EB electricity is not available for considerable duration

The 5% soft loan and 30% capital subsidy would obviously attract telecom service providers to opt solar power. Also, 90% capital subsidy by NSM in remote areas & special category states and Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation’s funding for the use of renewable energy in remote areas will increase the market adoption of solar for telecommunication industry.

Captive solar is possibly the best way to increase rural footprint of telecom service providers at an affordable cost, thereby improving the rural community access to communication. Certain telecom service providers have realized this and initiatives have been planned for no grid and poor grid regions. If successful proof of concept is available and telecom service providers are able to reduce the network operation cost, it will increase the market penetration of solar PV for captive power in the telecom industry.

Courtesy: Badri, Clixoo Solutions Pvt. Ltd

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About Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi)

Narsi, a Director at EAI, Co-founded one of India's first climate tech consulting firm in 2008.

Since then, he has assisted over 250 Indian and International firms, across many climate tech domain Solar, Bio-energy, Green hydrogen, E-Mobility, Green Chemicals.

Narsi works closely with senior and top management corporates and helps then devise strategy and go-to-market plans to benefit from the fast growing Indian Climate tech market.

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