Top tips for meeting power requirements on heavily loaded sites
Bladon Micro Turbine & TowerXchange team up to summarise the key takeaways from Meetup Asia
The motivations of operators and towercos both lead to the energy required to power a site being greater. Operators are adding more radio frequencies and more capacity, whereas a towerco is interested in increasing their tenancies, and increasing the services at the site they are responsible for.
In the advent of 2G, power consumption was estimated at 2-2.5kW per site. In the transition to 4G technology, it was reported that this had more than doubled to around 4.5-5kW per site with 4G technology active. Now, on sites with both 4G and 5G technology active, estimates are closer to 7-7.5kW, depending on the spectrum availability of each operator.
When considering the power that would be necessary for edge computing in addition to a plethora of active equipment, it is not unrealistic that the power consumption on the busiest of sites could easily rise close to 20kW.
Following consultation with the industry on these challenges, TowerXchange teamed up with microturbine manufacturer Bladon to hold a roundtable discussion that would help towercos, MNOs and energy equipment providers understand why dimensioning is getting more complicated and whether renewables and hybrid solutions can continue to serve sites when loads move above 7kW.
Featuring operations and technology leaders from the likes of Ascend Telecom Infrastructure, Summit Digitel and CellCard, we’ve pulled out the top tips that came up during the conversation to help towercos and operators manage power on their heavily loaded sites.
Scalability is vitally important – in both directions!
One of the main conclusions drawn from the discussion was the importance of investing in a scalable solution. Tower power requirements can vary significantly based on how many people are in the area and being served by the equipment on the tower at any one time, and unfortunately the sudden nature of this variability makes it tough to manage. Examples were shared where a tower might require 4kW Monday to Friday, but then 12 kW on a weekend. Dimensioning for a site such as this is a significant challenge.
It was also acknowledged that while we are currently experiencing a rapid growth in power requirements, it’s likely that this will come down in the future, as MNO consolidation and sunsetting of legacy technology eases the loads on equipment and tenancy ratios along with increased tower density sharing bandwidth across a larger number of sites. With this in mind, it is necessary for the power solutions that are required to meet the needs of 5G to be easily scaled back.
Towercos in India have seen first-hand that predicted network rollouts led to the investment in now unused infrastructure after consolidation at the operator level reduced requirements. With this recent history, there was a reluctance to be left with similar dead investments to accommodate predicted power requirements.
Stuart Kelly, VP, Sales, Bladon: We’re seeing lots of towercos want access to modular power that can use different fuels and combine with multiple types of renewable sources of energy to help ensure security of power supply. This can also extend to help them react to changes in site loads quickly, and even government policies towards ‘carbon’ taxes or other impediments to market growth
Solar can only get you so far
The physical space required for solar solutions has always been an inhibitor that has seen its use predominantly limited to ground-based towers, with most rooftops being out of the question. The exception to this would be a large, flat rooftop, such as the top of a supermarket. It has also been on these sites to power active equipment but is unlikely to be dimensioned for charging batteries. The scale of a solar solution would need to increase significantly if this was to be incorporated.
In India, we learnt that solar is frequently being used as a substitute to diesel. Solar is much cheaper, even when you take storage into account, and as prices go lower still, it’s more likely that solar could substitute grid supply. Unfortunately, however, there was a consensus in the group that the limit of solar solutions was around 5kW, which could in extreme cases be extended up to 7.5kW.
Solar is therefore unlikely to fully meet the demands of heavily loaded sites with more than two tenants, and has to be complemented with an alternative solution.
It was agreed, however, that if increased power demands are indeed short lived, that solar could act as a fantastic backbone to power the site now and in the future, with a supplementary power source utilised for the window when additional energy is required.
Stuart Kelly, VP, Sales, Bladon: Some of our partners, such as Gridserve, have developed bi-facial solar panels which increase the amount of energy gathered in the same physical space, which is very important for sites that are tight on space. If solutions like this are paired together with more efficient radio equipment, solar may soon be able to keep up, albeit partially with higher loads.
Solving these challenges requires collaboration across the ecosystem
In an effort to switch to fixed operating costs across their businesses, operators are increasingly entering into fixed contracts with infrastructure providers to manage their power. For towercos, this necessitates the need to stay efficient with power management, and incentivises them to look for innovative solutions on a site by site and macro level.
Historically this incentive has not extended to the radio equipment community. There is a perception among these crucial players that that power is cheap, easy or free. The only priority they take into consideration designing their solutions is bandwidth; not power. Putting more pressure on these vendors to deliver solutions could approach the power challenges from the angle of reducing the requirement in the first place rather than investing to bridge the gap.
Working closely with operators to understand how they plan on using sites and what type of power they will need in the future is important. A perfect microcosm for this is during the network rollout in Myanmar, where 2G solutions required 2-3 kW, but 3G and 4G were rapidly rolled out in the space of just a few years. This led to power solutions which had only been installed a few short years prior being very heavily loaded or not up to the task of providing high levels of uptime for the new higher load demand.
With the economics of managing power becoming more and more complicated, there was a feeling in the group that the ESCO model of charging per kwh was a viable and logical solution in terms of spreading the responsibility of increasing efficiency.
Stuart Kelly, VP Sales, Bladon: There still seems to be a disconnect between the people responsible for site dimensioning and achieving getting maximum coverage/bandwidth with the cost implications of achieving this from an energy perspective. There is an assumption that the grid will eventually become available, but this isn’t always the case, at least when the site needs to go live.
But even if the grid can support the dimensioning, it can still be unreliable and expensive from a new connection, CO2/kWh and tax perspective. There is also the risk of natural disasters. Better end to end planning in the lifecycle of site design may help in delivering ‘just in time’ power that means increased costs are incurred only when increased revenues are more likely to occur too.
Have a back-up plan for when the grid is down
While grid reliability across Asia has improved significantly, towercos and operators agreed that ensuring you had an adequate Plan B was still vitally important.
From a storage perspective, most participants reported success rolling out Lithium-Ion batteries, which were fast charging and could capture power generated by the grid for backup and supplementary purposes.
There are very strong ambitions to make sites diesel-free, but diesel gensets are still required as insurance for when grid and stored back-up power are both unavailable. While it can be an expensive investment to install or maintain technology for continuity reasons, the security of supply at heavily loaded sites is becoming more important and paying a premium for 99.9% up time rather than a cheaper 85% is becoming expected.
Unfortunately, the frequency and severity of natural disasters is increasing, not just in Asia but globally. At sites that run the risk of being exposed to damage due to storms or flooding, having a plan to manage power and ensure uptime of the tower is even more essential for heavily loaded sites that are likely to enable emergency services to have connectivity and vital communications to arrange logistics to manage the impact of the weather conditions.
In India, one solution to ensure that backup power is used to its fullest potential was to reduce the spectrum availability at the site, an agreement that had been signed-off by the government and by the towerco tenants.
Stuart Kelly, VP, Sales, Bladon: In addition to off-grid remote sites, participants in markets that regularly suffer from load shedding can have their high value sites exposed to days of downtime. Not only does this lead to lost revenue, it leads to customer dissatisfaction.
In response, a low maintenance, clean and fuel flexible solution can give that assurance for multi-day/multi-week backup for critical, high value sites.
The winds of change are blowing through wind turbines
Compared to solar, which the majority of participants in the discussion were optimistic could meet requirements up to 4-4.5kW, there was less enthusiasm about wind as an alternative fuel source due to lack of access to a vertical access wind turbines. However, unlike solar, if wind solutions were able to generate more power, they would be far more reliable than solar. As users, the majority of towercos are keen to support further investment in wind power, but lack the resources or ability to research and develop solutions themselves.
There were reports of collaboration between different energy providers, and renewable hybrid solutions that could marry solar, wind and micro-turbines and support power up to 12kW, and other wind solutions had the capability.
Stuart Kelly, VP, Sales, Bladon: Bladon’s partnership with Ryse Energy saw Bladon’s micro turbine generator integrated with Ryse's solar and wind turbine solutions to deliver maximum autonomy to the most remote sites, or sites that cannot receive grid-based power.
Our projects can be scaled to sites that run anything from 5kW up to 50kW or more but still only require a single site visit per year for any reason including refueling thus reducing running costs and carbon footprint too. This tackles all scopes of towerco and MNO sustainability goals in one integrated solution.
When it comes to managing power on heavily loaded sites, it seems clear there is not a one size fits all solution, as the transition from pure diesel gensets to more sustainable and modular solutions matures. Sharing the power requirements across multiple technologies is the most likely outcome for many of the high value sites in towerco portfolios.
As 5G continues to be rolled out across Asia against the backdrop of climate change and a necessity to reduce carbon emissions, solving these power challenges will be crucial to the industry moving forwards.