Towercos and telcos embrace energy self-generation – Huawei

Yanitsa Boyadzhieva
By Yanitsa Boyadzhieva

Jan 29, 2024

Source: Cellnex

Source: Cellnex

  • The telecom sector is exploring ways to make network edge sites more energy-efficient
  • Tower companies and telcos are starting to produce energy, as well as consume it, according to Huawei, making them ‘prosumers’  
  • Several companies have been looking at ways to self-generate power and subsequently reduce their environmental footprint and energy costs

Tower companies (towercos) and operators are increasingly producing energy instead of just consuming it, a move that ties in with the industry’s broader ambition to become more sustainable and efficient, according to Huawei.

In its “2024 White Paper on the Top 10 Site Power Trends”, Huawei Digital Power, the giant Chinese network infrastructure vendor’s digital power products and solutions unit, outlined 10 of the most noteworthy developments in the telco industry that are set to “power telecommunications operators’ green energy transition”.

According to the paper, operators are eager to evolve from being energy consumers to prosumers (individuals or entities that both consume and produce) due to “multi-dimensional pressure”, stemming from factors such as surging network power consumption and rising energy costs.

Huawei has estimated that while the power consumption of a 4G site is about 1 kilowatt (kW – the rate of power the site uses), the power consumption of a 5G site is three to four times greater than a 4G site at between 3 kW and 4 kW. The vendor also noted that the commercial deployment of 5G-Advanced technology (which is expected in the next few years) will only increase the power consumption rate of 5G cell sites. “Therefore, building green sites, improving site energy efficiency (SEE), boosting site value and increasing revenue are important development directions for operators,” Huawei noted in its whitepaper.

According to the vendor, telcos and towercos are already transforming from “mere energy consumers to proactive energy producers”, which is seen as a “pivotal” change in shifting the global energy landscape towards a low-carbon society.

Their sustainability efforts include the construction of low-carbon networks and the production of green energy, as well as participation in power scheduling through the use of cutting-edge technologies, such as photovoltaic (PV) systems and energy storage systems (ESS).

One towerco putting such efforts into practice is Cellnex, the Spanish neutral host infrastructure provider that has become one of the largest mobile site operators in Europe through a number of major acquisitions (though it has now embarked on a new strategy that focuses on a portfolio revamp and debt reduction programme). 

The company told TelecomTV that its Energy Transition Plan, which it initiated in 2021, includes numerous efforts that aim to increase environmental sustainability, including a pillar dedicated to the self-generation of power.

In one development, the towerco has carried out a pilot project to promote the self-production of solar energy. After testing different tools for energy self-consumption across radio and TV broadcasting and mobile sites, in 2022 it announced it was working on a plan to power 45% of its facilities in Spain with solar panels. At the time, Cellnex opted to improve the efficiency and sustainability of these sites, in terms of both cost and environmental impact, with a battery-less, panel-generated solar power approach.

Cellnex noted when it initiated the plan that it will apply the outcomes of its trials to other countries in which it has operations, adding that the northernmost countries come with greater challenges for energy generation due to fewer hours of power-generative sunlight. Its plan is to use this solar-energy method to supply more than 10% of its total energy needs with onsite self-generation by 2026.

In another pilot (again started in 2022), Cellnex tested and validated the use of aluminium-air batteries as backup power at its sites. The trial, which was conducted in Spain, saw a diesel generator set replaced with aluminium-air batteries, allowing renewable energy to be produced by hydroelectric power plants and then stored in blocks of aluminium. In order to generate usable energy from this, the aluminium is then combined with oxygen from ambient air, using “state-of-the-art air electrodes, in a totally silent process that generates no emissions or pollution,” the company explained.

Vantage Towers, the European neutral infrastructure giant that is majority owned by Oak Holdings (a joint venture between Vodafone, Global Infrastructure Partners and KKR), has also been taking steps to generate its own energy. A company representative told TelecomTV that Vantage Towers is piloting green energy generation directly on its sites using solar panels and micro wind turbines, as well as hydrogen engines and bio-methanol fuel cells. Last year the company unveiled its first mobile radio station with micro wind turbines. As part of the move, conducted in Germany, eight turbines were installed near the middle of a steel lattice tower, to produce a combined 7 megawatt hours (MWh) per year at average wind speeds.

Following this launch, Vantage Towers now plans to install 752 micro wind turbines at 52 of its sites in Germany, in partnership with German wind energy startup Mowea. Their total maximum capacity for power generation will be 650 MWh per year, which will be consumed on site, and will only be fed into the mobile communications systems of Vantage Towers’ customer, Vodafone. On an especially windy day, the tower company noted the turbines will be able to generate enough energy to fulfil up to 100% of the sites’ current power demands.

According to Vantage Towers, in the long term and in combination with other solutions such as photovoltaics, the wind turbines can be used for “the self-sufficient power supply of mobile phone stations that are not connected to the power grid”.

Another natural element being explored by Vantage Towers is the power of the sun. The towerco has set up hybrid solar-generator solutions to power around 50 sites in rural areas of Spain with no commercial power supply. The company believes that as technologies develop, “it is conceivable that solar panels will offer a viable power source for masts across our portfolio”.

On the operator side, telco group Orange has also been exploring solar energy as a source, and at the start of 2023 it unveiled a project to set up its first photovoltaic power station in France. The solar farm is set to go online in 2025 – see What’s up with… Orange, Verizon, AT&T.

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV

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