How Morningstar are revolutionising battery efficiency

As telecom networks are increasingly expanding into rural locations, self sustainable solutions are required

Morningstar Solar Site

Read this article to learn:

  • What Morningstar do and how their solar solutions are being deployed in the field
  • The urgency behind efficiently powering ultra-rural sites
  • How you can get the absolute maximum out of your batteries
  • What challenges remain for solar and how Morningstar are helping to overcome them

With over four million products installed in the field since 1993, Morningstar is one of the leading solar contractors in mission-critical installations around the globe. They are supporting the growing shift to solar technologies that is being seen across the the telecommunications industry by offering an extensive line of solar components and systems that are offering greater energy efficiency and cost reductions.

TowerXchange: For those who don’t know, can you start off by telling us a little bit more about Morningstar and your history of providing solutions to the telcoms industry?

Jim McGrath, Director Sales & Business Development, Morningstar Corporation: Telecom infrastructure is increasingly located in remote, isolated areas—from mountain tops to desert regions— usually far from any electrical grid and rely on on-site power generation to operate. But between fuel and maintenance costs, generators are expensive to own and operate. For MNOs, the ultimate goal is to establish self-sustainable mobile networks with higher efficiency and profitability and remain competitive in a lower Average-Revenue-Per-User (ARPU) environment.

Morningstar offers both serial and Ethernet communications using industry standard MODBUS™ protocol with many different solar controllers including the ProStar and TriStar families. Selected components are now Simple Network Management Protocol compatible (SNMP). Morningstar’s proprietary TrakStar™ solar harvesting technology and fanless design make for inherently more reliable and efficient systems.

TowerXchange: Can you share some examples of how this has benefited tower operators in the field?

Jim McGrath, Director Sales & Business Development, Morningstar Corporation: The first which comes to mind is an example in the far northern Yukon Territory in Canada. The tower operator managed a network of extremely remote line-of-sight microwave repeater stations, completely inaccessible by road. In fact diesel was required to be transported twice annually by helicopter. The installation of our solar controllers enabled the reduction of diesel consumption by 60% and realized a payback in less than two years for some sites. This clearly represents an extreme scenario, but proves the value and reliability of pure solar PV for telecoms under the most challenging conditions.

Another example is rural networks in Africa, where one of the requirements was to allow the partial shut-down of on-site equipment to conserve power and extend battery life, while keeping critical backhaul equipment available for administrative access. In such cases the ability to remote power-cycle connected loads and enable system resetting allows applying configuration changes and updates to on-site equipment.

Morningstar charge controllers support this functionality in small, remote “packaged solution” systems designed and engineered for this application. The same approach is now being used for networks in Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt, with thousands of such systems successfully deployed.

TowerXchange: Many towercos are looking to optimise the batteries they are using to improve energy efficiency – how is Morningstar helping with this?

Jim McGrath, Director Sales & Business Development, Morningstar Corporation: Optimising battery charging and maximizing energy efficiency is our core competency and singular focus as a company. We manufacture the world’s most advanced solar battery charging systems consistently achieving at least 96% power conversion efficiency across our entire MPPT controller range with peak performance as high as 99% in a fully optimised system. This entails engineering power electronics with an approach prioritizing thermal efficiency over cost, then tuning the remaining system architecture and components with that same mindset.

We build several features into our charge controllers specifically to optimise charging and protect batteries. This is more vital than ever with many installations now using lithium batteries, which represent a much larger capex investment as compared to traditional lead-acid. Morningstar charge controllers have built-in temperature compensation and “fold back” circuitry for example. When temperatures drop below the point where charging could potentially damage lithium batteries, our charge controllers “throttle back” their operation to prevent harming them.

Regarding charging, our MPPT controllers feature our TrakStar technology which maximizes solar harvesting so that the batteries can take advantage of every watt available from a solar array– even under fluctuating lighting and temperature conditions. There’s nothing wasted. And we use a patented 4-stage charging algorithm to further optimise battery health. We achieve higher operating efficiencies through a series of engineering innovations including superior heat management and passive cooling. By eliminating on-board cooling fans other controllers require, we free the controller-battery system from having to run parasitic loads that consume electricity.

TowerXchange: Why is optimising the efficiency of ultra-rural, off grid sites more important now than it ever has been?

Jim McGrath, Director Sales & Business Development, Morningstar Corporation:MNOs are racing to increasing their number of subscribers which requires new coverage in rural areas where traditional infrastructure hasn’t been developed. New high bandwidth satellite services enable site placements where fiber and microwave aren’t practical.

Optimising efficiency is really about building the most resilient networks possible. An ultra-rural cellular network operating with consistent uptime builds subscriber confidence. We see solar solutions as the key to the required uptime and providing the cost-effectiveness to make the rural networks reliable and profitable Embracing solar quickly before your competitor can help you capture subscribers forever.

The reason for this is in these areas, power grids either don’t exist or are unreliable. Generators wreak havoc on the environment with dirty emissions and noise, are costly to maintain, and diesel fuel is often stolen. Solar is the answer; it has truly come of age. Module efficiency is up 20% in the last 5 years and costs have declined rapidly. Lithium battery storage is nearly ubiquitous across all telecommunications markets now due to technical and cost advantages. Looking at all of these factors, solar is one of the key essential pillars of success in ultra-rural applications. Go a different way, and you’ll miss the growth.

TowerXchange: Solar power has been long touted as a solution to the telcom industries energy woes. While progress is no doubt being made, what are some of the key challenges you see that is stopping more solar energy being used to power cell sites?

Jim McGrath, Director Sales & Business Development, Morningstar Corporation:One of them is awareness. Many operators simply haven’t considered solar because they aren’t aware of its cost benefits relative to other remote powering solutions. A solar electric system may have a comparatively higher up-front cost compare to a generator because you have to consider the arrays, balance-of-system components and the batteries for storage. But once both powering solutions are switched “on” the cost impact changes dramatically.

Solar simply has no moving parts, and requires minimal maintenance. Solar needs no fueling. Generators, on the other hand, have frequent maintenance and overhaul requirements and require constant fueling. Both maintenance and fueling are especially expensive at remote sites. In contrast, a well-designed solar electric system can operate for years “hands off.”

Another is priority based on perception, and by that we mean the belief that the main reason to “go solar” is to implement greener systems. But in other industries the opposite has been proven true. Take oil & gas production– that’s an area where the rapid adoption of solar for remotely powering critical systems was driven by purely pragmatic forces. First came the need for powering remote monitoring and other systems on ocean platforms and along thousands of miles of pipelines.

To manage that, operators quickly learned that PV/Solar had a tremendous advantage in achieving lower overall operational costs. The new “digital oilfield” technologies being implemented were saving companies hundreds of millions of dollars, and they quickly recognized solar as an integral part of that success. In that field while there’s emphasis on “greening the oilfield,” the incentive to solarise is solidly driven by greening the bottom line. We believe that a similar awakening is occurring in the telecom sector, with solar successes in small rural systems showing the way for larger implementations.

Morningstar will be joining Meetup Africa 2021 online from 5-7 October and in Dubai 12-13 October. They are joining to understand the finer points of the challenges faced by towercos and infracos as they relate to powering critical infrastructure. If you want to book a meeting with Morningstar to discuss ideas around how they can continue to refine their packaged solutions to reduce installation costs and enable more seamless integration with the NMS, then make sure you are registered to attend.

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