Power from Towers: MTN light's up South Africa's streets
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Power from Towers: MTN light's up South Africa's streets

As South Africa's power situation continues to deteriorate MTN has started an innovative project to help keep the lights on - literally!

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MTN and the Johannesburg Roads Agency have forms an innovative public-private partnership to tackle South Africa’s ongoing loadshedding challenges to provide backup power to all traffic lights in Soweto that are located near MTN base stations, touted as a ‘Power from Towers’ solution.

MTN base stations will supply power to traffic lights during times of loadshedding from the sites’ backup power systems to “significantly alleviate delays and frustrations experienced by Soweto residents and commuters” according to the press release. By providing reliable AC power backup, MTN is taking a proactive step towards enhancing traffic management in the region.

“This is an excellent example of what can be achieved when the private and public sectors work together to positively impact the lives of citizens” said MTN South Africa’s CEO Charles Molapisi.

Acting CEO for the JRA Zweli Nyati stated that “by partnering with businesses, we are taking proactive steps to alleviate the impact load shedding has on commuters, due to its impact on our traffic lights.”

“To ensure efficient traffic flow at peak times, we need smooth-flowing traffic corridors that lead traffic onto highways, keeping people moving to their destinations with ease and efficiency. By ensuring a stable power supply to traffic lights, we aim to enhance road safety, minimize congestion, and create a more seamless driving and transportation experience for all road users”.

The deal will include MTN signing a Service Level Agreement where, during periods of load shedding, the base stations will draw from their power backup systems to provide energy to traffic lights. A traffic corridor is being created from the Flora Clinic, along 14th Avenue towards the N1 highway, which leads to outside the MTN head office to ensure smooth movement onto and off the N1 highway.

MTN is also engaging other metros across other parts of Gauteng and across South Africa to offer their power services. The plan is to expand the project by partnering with municipalities nationwide to create corridors of free-flowing traffic during load-shedding using mobile base stations to power traffic lights where possible.

South Africa’s energy crisis: a quick recap

Load shedding refers to strategic blackouts where sections of the grid are turned off from the electricity supply to ease pressure on a failing power grid, or one which does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of all users. Load shedding in South Africa is no new phenomenon and has been an ongoing issue for at least a decade from around 2003. Citizens regularly experience grid outages of up to 10 hours per day due to rolling blackouts.

Eskom is South Africa’s state-owned national energy utility provider and is responsible for overseeing all stages of electricity provision from generation to distribution. Since its establishment in 1923, Eskom has struggled to meet generation capacity, with a government whitepaper published back in 1998 warning about the country’s poor energy planning and foreshadowed that without heavy investment in new power generation facilities it would witness drastic shortages by 2007.

In a rather prophetic outcome, Eskom began implementing loadshedding late that year. In the 2022-2023 financial year it was only able to meet half the country’s power needs according to Reuters and has wiped as much as 2 percentage points off economic growth this year.

South Africa’s energy issues haven’t gone unnoticed, with President Cyril Ramaphosa describing the worsening situation as a “state of disaster” and has formed two ministry departments, the Ministry of Electricity and the Ministry with Specific Responsibility for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation, to address these issues.

Eskom has now escalated loadshedding up to stage 4 and is currently in a rotation of stages 2 and 4 repeating “until further notice” due to the loss of three additional generation units overnight. Delays to the returning service of a generating unit at Tutuka and Kendal Power Stations are also contributing to the current capacity constraints.

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel, with new regulation being introduced to allow private power companies to set up operations, breaking Eskom's long-standing monopoly on power generation. Officials in Cape Town hope to procure up to 500 megawatts from private companies by 2026 to provide around a third of the city’s annual electricity needs.

Other cities including Johannesburg are looking at issuing tenders for private energy generation. Power infrastructure is no short-term solution, but assuming projects are implemented and delivered in a timely fashion, the hope is that South Africa’s loadshedding will remain a crisis in the short-to-medium term.

South Africa’s telecoms industry is weathering the storm

The decline of South Africa’s energy grid has had huge impacts for the country’s telecommunications industry. MTN uses 450,000 litres of fuel per month deploying over 2,000 generators to counter the impacts of higher loadshedding, while Vodacom has spent ZAR 300 million on diesel, security and maintenance to keep its network active. Telkom also used up four million liters of diesel from November to January to keep sites online.

IHS Towers has faced the greatest challenge having taken on the ambitious sale leaseback of MTN’s 5,700 tower portfolio last year including providing power-as-a-service to all 13,000 sites where MTN is a tenant. The decline of the energy grid has left IHS struggling to maintain service lease agreements. Vodacom’s new operator-led towerco MAST, which is in the final stages of carving out, has been focused on ensuring sites have resilient energy and have invested heavily in battery, solar and generator backup.

Network providers have also suffered hundreds of millions of rand worth of damage from theft and vandalism, as energy equipment such as batteries, generators, diesel and even solar panels become much sought after. Vodacom reportedly averages 600 incidents per month where sites are impacted due to theft or damage, with base station break-ins becoming daily occurrences.

Operator 5G rollouts have been hit particularly hard, as much-needed CAPEX has been rerouted from deployments of 5G sites and equipment towards energy backup to keep existing 3G and 4G sites live. 5G equipment is putting its own pressure on energy consumption rates, so the loadshedding issues have made it particularly difficult to keep deployments commercially viable.

But as energy has become a greater issue for MNOs, towercos are stepping in to fill the gap offering their own power solutions. IHS Towers is not the only firm providing power-as-a-service; American Tower recently ran a successful PaaS proof of concept, Helios Towers is looking to purchase power from private providers under a power wheeling model, and SBA South Africa offers grid consumption reduction and backup power solutions. Smaller towercos such as Insite Towers are also offering power-as-a-service, while WIRUlink operates a sister ESCO company called EnergyOn.

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