The Rev­o­lu­tion

For the tele­com tower in­dus­try—be­set with tech, en­ergy, and cost is­sues—the so­lar power sys­tem re­mains the only eco­nom­i­cally vi­able and tested so­lu­tion

Voice&Data - - GREEN TOWERS - Teck­kee Shih

The tele­com tow­ers burnt about 2 bn liters of diesel and pro­duced 5.3 mn tons of CO2 in 2010. It should not come as a sur­prise that these diesel guz­zling giants will con­sume 2.8 bn liters and pro­duce 7.4 mn tons of CO2 by 2015. It just goes to show that the tele­com tower in­dus­try has evolved into the sec­ond largest consumer of diesel—next only to the In­dian rail­ways.

The tower in­dus­try’s rapid growth re­sulted in the tower com­pa­nies adopt­ing diesel-pow­ered sys­tems at the tele­com sites. How­ever the sys­tems proved to be un­sus­tain­able in the long run. The core fo­cus of tower com­pa­nies was ex­pan­sion and prof­its at the ex­pense of strength and steady growth through more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient so­lar power sys­tems. There­fore it was quite ob­vi­ous that an ur­gent ac­tion was needed to be taken to switch over to so­lar power sys­tems.

One of the main cul­prits was out­sourc­ing of highly tech­ni­cal ser­vices to ven­dors (OMES and SMES) with the low­est bid with­out check­ing their cre­den­tials to ex­e­cute the job. Over the years, some tower com­pa­nies lost the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise re­quired to run a com­pany ef­fi­ciently. In or­der to re­solve the tech­ni­cal is­sues, they de­pended solely on ven­dors’ help to re­duce en­ergy con­sump­tion.

Dur­ing the ex­pan­sion phase, DOT and Trai failed to en­force the min­i­mum stan­dards for power sys­tems at the tele­com sites. As a con­se­quence, the sites ended up as free-for-all test­ing grounds for ven­dors sup­ply­ing new equip­ment with lit­tle or no over­all un­der­stand­ing of the power and bat­tery sys­tem. The pres­sure from mo­bile op­er­a­tors to re­duce monthly en­ergy cost has re­sulted in tower com­pa­nies tak­ing un­nec­es­sary risks to try out any­thing that comes with a prom­ise of en­ergy re­duc­tions.

DOT, TEC, Trai, and MNRE re­al­ized that us­ing diesel to power the tele­com sites is un­sus­tain­able and came up with a path­break­ing fea­si­bil­ity study to switch from diesel to so­lar power sys­tems in 2008. The rec­om­men­da­tions in the white pa­per were far­sighted but the ex­e­cu­tion of them left a lot to be de­sired be­cause the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise to eval­u­ate the kind of so­lar sys­tem to be adopted was lack­ing in the or­ga­ni­za­tions. Some tower com­pa­nies ended up try­ing as many as 10 dif­fer­ent so­lar so­lu­tion providers with­out any suc­cess.

The sta­tus quo con­tin­ued un­til early mid-2011 when the gen­eral pub­lic and Green­peace move­ment started putting pres­sure on stake­hold­ers to switch over to a more eco-friendly power source. MNRE came up with a scheme to sub­si­dize 30% of 400 so­lar-pow­ered sites, but un­for­tu­nately only 75 sites were of­fi­cially taken up by the tower com­pa­nies.

Un­sus­tain­able Busi­ness Model

The tower com­pa­nies are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to pass on the hid­den cost for diesel theft, trans­porta­tion, DG main­te­nance, and bat­tery re­place­ment to the mo­bile op­er­a­tors. The cur­rent tower com­pany busi­ness model is de­pen­dent on the num­ber of tenants per site as their only source of rev­enue. Ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try es­ti­mates, the break-even ra­tio is 1.7 tenants per site.

Many tower com­pa­nies are barely get­ting the high up­front in­vest­ment out­lay (`30 lakh) for the new sites. The long pay­back pe­riod of about 8 years, with sin­gle ten­ancy, means tougher times ahead. A re­cent news re­port of tower com­pa­nies up for sale is re­flec­tive of the cur­rent mar­ket sen­ti­ment. Val­u­a­tions for tower com­pa­nies have been much lower com­pared to the last year. The lack of tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, high oper­a­tional costs, and diesel theft are se­ri­ous is­sues af­fect­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of tele­com tower busi­ness. These is­sues are dif­fi­cult to re­solve be­cause of the huge num­ber of tow­ers spread out all over In­dia.

The Tech­nol­ogy

In China, the third gen­er­a­tion fully in­te­grated so­lar power sys­tem was de­vel­oped out of ne­ces­sity be­cause like In­dia, many re­mote re­gions in China are with­out grid power. Europe and the US didn’t have these is­sues and there was no ne­ces­sity to de­velop in­te­grated off-grid so­lar pow­ered sys­tems for the tele­com tow­ers. China is the only coun­try in the world with more than 40,000 au­ton­o­mous so­lar-pow­ered tele­com sites op­er­at­ing in the re­mote re­gions un­der ex­treme cli­matic con­di­tions (-60°C to +50°C). They are the lead­ers in high-end, fully in­te­grated au­ton­o­mous so­lar power sys­tems for the tele­com tow­ers.

The gen­eral per­cep­tion about the so­lar power sys­tems in In­dia is that all the so­lar sys­tems are hav­ing the same tech base and they will work ir­re­spec­tive of the kind of sys­tems adopted. Very few re­al­ize that tele­com tower so­lar sys­tems are the most com­plex of all the so­lar sys­tems. They in­volve in­te­grat­ing power sup­ply from mul­ti­ple power sources, so­lar panel,

The lack of tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, high oper­a­tional costs, and diesel theft are se­ri­ous is­sues af­fect­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of tele­com tower busi­ness

grid, bat­tery, and get­ting them to work in tan­dem.

Lo­cal so­lar so­lu­tion providers are not con­fi­dent that a so­lar sys­tem with­out DG is pos­si­ble. Their half-baked so­lar/dg so­lu­tions will not re­solve is­sues of diesel theft and high op­er­at­ing ex­pense. It will only re­duce some of the is­sues but the root of the prob­lem caused by us­ing diesel is not elim­i­nated.

In­dia’s so­lar in­dus­try is still in its in­fancy and most so­lar sys­tem so­lu­tion providers are still of­fer­ing the first-gen­er­a­tion so­lar/dg sys­tems that are not suit­able for the tele­com sites. The third gen­er­a­tion fully in­te­grated so­lar power so­lu­tion providers were not avail­able un­til re­cently. A well-de­signed, fully in­te­grated so­lar power sys­tem can re­duce monthly en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture by as much as 90%, with­out burn­ing a sin­gle drop of diesel. A right-sized bat­tery bank with an in­tel­li­gent charge con­troller will last for min­i­mum 5 years.

The so­lar power sys­tems for tele­com tow­ers must be de­signed keep­ing in mind the pro­vi­sion of re­mote ac­cess to in­di­vid­ual client’s en­ergy con­sump­tion for billing. The ex­ist­ing billing pro­ce­dure re­quires an army of work­ers and long hours of man­ual data prepa­ra­tion. A smart so­lar power sys­tem must pro­vide all the nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion for billing, as­set man­age­ment, and re­mote site sur­veil­lance.

The so­lar power sys­tem re­mains the only eco­nom­i­cally vi­able and tested so­lu­tion for the time be­ing for tele­com tow­ers. The other power sys­tems like fuel cells, lithium, flow bat­tery, bio­gas, hy­dro-power sys­tem are just wish­ful think­ing from peo­ple who know so lit­tle

For more re­lated ar­ti­cles go to voicen­

about them. There is not even a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity of those sys­tems men­tioned be­ing eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.

Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the slow roll­out plans and the grow­ing num­ber of un­suc­cess­ful so­lar power sites, tower com­pa­nies are skep­ti­cal about the so­lar sys­tem as a vi­able so­lu­tion. On the ba­sis of re­cent re­ports, less than 0.5% of tele­com sites have been con­verted to so­lar/dg hy­brid sys­tem.

How to Move For­ward?

Very few are aware that the mo­bile op­er­a­tors are pay­ing for the monthly en­ergy bill and not the tower com­pa­nies. They are not in a hurry to switch to so­lar be­cause they are not fi­nan­cially af­fected by the con­sis­tent rise in diesel price. DOT and Trai must in­sist that stake­hold­ers switch to so­lar sys­tem, other­wise it may drag on un­til the dam­age is ir­repara­ble.

To pre­vent a dis­as­ter from hap­pen­ing in the tele­com sec­tor, DOT and Trai must man­date that all new sites com­ing on stream should be pow­ered by so­lar sys­tems with­out us­ing diesel. This will at least ar­rest the sit­u­a­tion from get­ting bad to worse.

DOT and Trai only need to kick-start the process af­ter a few suc­cess­ful so­lar sites have been ver­i­fied with monthly en­ergy sav­ings above 90%. The stake­hold­ers will au­to­mat­i­cally em­bark on so­lar­iza­tion of tele­com tow­ers.

Tower com­pa­nies can pro­pose pro­vid­ing power to mo­bile op­er­a­tors at the cur­rent en­ergy cost, fixed for the next 10 years in new sites. This sus­tain­able model may even­tu­ally turn things around for tower com­pa­nies be­cause it is new and more lu­cra­tive rev­enue source other than just the monthly rental.

The suc­cess­ful ap­pli­ca­tion of the in­te­grated so­lar tech­nol­ogy in the tele­com in­dus­try can be repli­cated in other sec­tors like consumer, in­dus­trial, and com­mer­cial projects. This could be the be­gin­ning of a so­lar rev­o­lu­tion which may even­tu­ally over­take the IT rev­o­lu­tion. The author is chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, ALTA En­ergy Tech­nolo­gies vad­mail@cy­ber­me­

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