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Turning to Renewables: Opportunities and challenges
As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendation and the Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) directive on green telecom, service providers must ensure that at least 50 per cent of telecom towers in rural areas and 20 per cent in urban areas should run on hybrid power – a combination of renewable energy and grid power – by 2015. This should increase to 75 per cent and 33 per cent respectively by 2020.
Telecom operators have to declare their carbon footprint on a biannual basis. The government has set the carbon emission reduction targets at 5 per cent by 2012-13, 8 per cent by 2014-15, 12 per cent by 2016-17 and 17 per cent by 2018-19.
Further, all products, equipment and services in the telecom network should be certified “Green Passport” by 2015. TRAI has stated that the Telecommunication Engineering Centre will certify telecom products, equipment and services on the basis of their energy consumption ratings. The directions given by the regulator and approved by DoT have thus necessitated the use of green energy by telecom operators.
Manoj Singh, Chief Technology Officer, Indus Towers
The tower industry, through the Tower and Infrastructure Providers’ Association (TAIPA), has sought clarifications with regard to DoT’s green telecom directive.
TRAI’s recommendation has defined hybrid power as “renewable energy technology and grid”, with no mention of battery as backup. The Cellular Operators’ Association of India, the Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India and TAIPA have requested DoT to add battery to this definition as no technology is sufficient to ensure 24x7 power supply for telecom operations.
The directive also requires tower companies to submit their carbon footprint declaration. However, the formula used by TRAI for carbon footprint calculations is complex and erratic. The three industry associations selected The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to suggest corrections to the formula. TERI’s recommendations have been submitted to DoT and await the authority’s response. This is a key reason behind none of the operators declaring their carbon footprint so far.
The renewable energy and emissions reduction targets stated by DoT are unachievable, technically and financially. In this regard, the industry associations have stated that the methodology for achieving these targets should be decided by the operators.
These targets will have a significant financial impact on telecom tower companies’ capex. Indus Towers has carried out an analysis on the current capex incurred by tower companies versus the capex required for renewable energy technologies (RET) to comply with the targets. Currently, the telecom tower industry is investing $3 billion per annum as capex. To achieve the RET targets, an additional $1.5 billion will have to be invested per annum. This translates into $24 billion of regular capex and $12 billion of capex on RETs to achieve the 2020 targets.
Meanwhile, tower companies are already undertaking green programmes. For instance, of the 115,000 sites belonging to Indus Towers, 11,000 have already been made diesel-free. The company aims to increase this to 20,000 by 2013. Close to 1,000 Indus Towers’ sites are powered by solar-DG-grid hybrids. The company has observed that the uptime of telecom towers has further increased with solar being used as the fourth source of power, besides grid, DG and battery.
TAIPA too has initiated a renewable energy service company (resco) pilot project. It is a multidirectional effort towards greener telecom with better storage technologies. Under this initiative, it has decided to experiment with various green technologies including compressed natural gas gensets, fuel cells, liquefied petroleum gas gensets, inverter, ID-OD, wind and solar applications, and free cooling units.
The aim is to convert 100,000 towers across the country into green sites. TAIPA floated a request for proposal (RfP) for a pilot project on June 29, 2012. The project proposals submitted are being evaluated and segmented as Category A, where technical bids are as per the TAIPA RfP; Category B, where bids have been submitted with slight changes with respect to the RfP; and Category C, where bids are not as per the proposal. Several rescos were engaged for clarifications with TAIPA and around 25 applicants were shortlisted. The commercial RfP was released for these shortlisted companies on August 27, 2012.
The resco model is a backup power concept and is not for 24x7 power supply from renewable energy sources. The target is to replace diesel.
Renewable energy technology costs have not yet matured and it is not possible for these technologies to achieve grid parity soon. However, Indus Towers believes that it will be able to replace not just diesel but battery as well. Even the cheapest battery – VRLA – costs Rs 8-Rs 9 per unit, while grid power is an additional Rs 8-Rs 9 per unit. This implies the cost of power will be Rs 16-Rs 17 per unit. Rescos will help the tower companies with the volume-driven model provided by TAIPA to replace even the batteries and help them bring down the overall power costs.
Rajiv Garg, Business Head, Telecom, Moser Baer
A tower company’s en ergy spend accounts for over 30 per cent of its total expenses. The gap between DG and solar-DG hybrid costs has been increasing, given the rising diesel prices and declining solar equipment costs. Hence, several companies are exploring alternatives to reduce overall costs. Two key initiatives taken by the industry in this direction recently are the RfPs floated by TAIPA and Bharti Infratel Limited.
As per TAIPA’s RfP, the resco has to set up a renewable energy system on a build-own-operate basis for 10 years. Further, it has to deliver power to telecom towers within 10 minutes of a power outage and provide surplus power (if any) to the community around the tower through a separate engagement. The resco can charge the tower company on a per unit (kWh) basis through a power purchase agreement. Further, this has to be achieved without any DG backup (except in case of emergencies). The pilot project will be carried out in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh (East and West), Rajasthan as well as Maharashtra and Goa.
However, there are several bottlenecks in the model proposed in the RfP. There are several technical challenges in centralised power distribution such as the distribution limitation beyond 100 metres for low voltage DC power.
Besides, there are issues in the resco providing a DG-free model. Take for example a situation where there is no grid power available. For DG-free operations, a two ID base transceiver station site with an average load of 6 kW will need a 50 kWp solar power plant, which would require an area of 8,000 square feet (750 square metres) near the site. This will entail an investment of approximately Rs 10 million per site.
Another major concern is whether TAIPA will take the responsibility of other vendor issues with tower companies or act only as a rate contract agency.
As per Bharti Infratel’s RfP for solar solutions, the resco is required to provide a power generation guarantee for 4 kWh per kWp per day measured at the solar charge controller output. It will be responsible for the maintenance of the solar power system, including the cleaning of panels, for a 10 year-period.
Bharti Infratel’s RfP also has certain issues. It is not possible to guarantee solar power generation for 4 kWh per kWp per day as solar energy generation depends upon solar irradiation. The required solar energy generation can be guaranteed if solar horizontal irradiation is more than 5.35 kWh per square metre per day (as per global standards), which is a site-specific condition. Moreover, as solar power is a passive energy source, it does not generate if there is no load requirement. In case the batteries do not need more power and there is no load requirement, it is not possible to prove that the solar system is generating the guaranteed amount of power. This is a technical glitch that needs to be addressed by Bharti Infratel.Despite the glitches, technological advancements in this field provide an excellent opportunity for rescos.
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