When Should 5G Operators Deploy Renewables?

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3Q 2021 | IN-6193

The use of sustainable and renewable energy is a continued priority as 5G begins to enter the market.

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5G, Renewable Energy and Climate Change


The demand for high data rates and wider network coverage is now accelerating the roll out of 5G network. While 5G is expected to bring user experience improvements in the consumer domain and new types of services in the enterprise domain, its deployment also comes at a huge cost for operators. Electricity consumption per unit of data traffic (MB) is much less, but 5G generally requires significantly more base stations, which results in higher total energy consumption and higher energy cost. The environmental damage caused by the extraction and burning fossil fuels is a pressing concern now more than ever. With the regulations to cut carbon footprints and growing global pressure to fight climate change, mobile operators are already seeking ways to make 5G more efficient and, at the same time, seeking alternative energy sources for the long-term carbon efficiency of their networks.

The Mobile Sector Working to Reach Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050


Mobile operators are facing a sharp increase in energy usage and a fluctuating energy market in a 5G world, which could lead to very high energy costs as well as putting great pressure on the grid. Similar to many other technologies and markets, mobile operators are contemplating switching to renewable energy sources for power, which can reduce dependence on conventional grid energy and minimize carbon emissions.

Mobile network operators are increasingly aware of the environmental challenge and many of them have proposed green strategies to limit their carbon footprints. During 2020, Vodafone invested almost €80 million in energy efficiency and renewable projects which led to a total annual energy saving of 186 GWh. By 2025, Vodafone aims to have 100% renewable electricity for fixed and mobile networks in Europe, either by buying renewable sources from the grid via PPA and green tariff, or investing in renewables (i.e., solar panels) for self-generation on site where feasible. In the second half of 2020, Deutsche Telekom and Ericsson partnered up on renewable energy for a mobile site, aiming to show that independent energy supply for mobile site with solar is possible. The pilot project confirmed the potential of solar energy as an alternative power source for mobile site by showing that it was capable to contribute to over two-thirds of the site’s total energy demand during peak hours. It has been estimated that 5G could reduce carbon emissions by 1% in 2030 (over 250 MtCO2), by accelerating the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Renewable Energy Integration in 5G Networks


Previously, the high capital cost associated with renewable energy is the major barrier to prevent it from being widely deployed. The electricity cost of renewable energy has fallen sharply in the past decade, due to the economies of scale, further technology improvements, and increased competitions in supply chains. Since 2010, the cost of utility scale photovoltaic (PV) plants has declined by 82%, followed by onshore wind at 39% and offshore wind at 29%. The lowest cost of solar PV was seen in India, followed by China and Spain, whereas, for onshore wind, China, India, Sweden, Brazil, and the United States all managed to generate at the low-cost range for fossil fuel-fired electricity generation. Certain wind and solar plants could already produce electricity at a lower cost than fossil fuel generators. In fact, solar and wind plants are expected to be half as costly as gas by 2025, and cheaper than coal in all large markets around the world by 2030 at the latest. There is already research to show that solar PV could lead to a cost saving of 60-65% over its projected life when compared to traditional use of diesel generators in developing countries like Nigeria, with the right policy to support the initial investment cost.

Eliminating the cost barrier for renewable energy makes them more attractive to mobile operators but they still face some technical issues. In urban areas, there are spatial constraints as multiple occupancy high level buildings all share one roof and land for ground-based units is scarce. Meanwhile, the high urban energy usage makes it unlikely that renewable energy can meet this level of demand. Renewable energy source is intermittent and therefore cannot be deployed as an independent source of continuous power. Instead, they could be used to supplement and support the grid in peak demand hours.

In conclusion, mobile network operators can shift towards renewable energy source once they start rolling out 5G in rural areas where grid supply is unreliable or there is no grid infrastructure and a relatively lower electricity demand. A feasibility assessment is a crucial step in designing a renewable power enabled 5G network. Equally, more sophisticated and accurate models are critical to represent the balance between performance and energy efficiency, and the complex operation of such 5G networks. Economically, they should consider places where there is regulatory framework and subsidies, renewable obligation certificates established by governments. In the future, mobile network operators should partner up with energy providers in developing future urban/rural infrastructure. With 5G, renewable energy monitoring becomes faster as information can be collected and sent instantly, so actions can be taken quickly when there is the need to make adjustments or improvements. Both sectors will benefit enormously and help bring about a more sustainable world.



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