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Alcatel-Lucent: First ‘on-grid’ alternative-energy cell sites on the horizon

As costs of deploying solar and wind power falls and energy costs rise, carriers may start looking toward green cell sites as soon as 2010—even if access to the power grid is readily available

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As it applies to wireless telecom, the ‘alternative’ in alternative energy has come to mean ‘no other alternative.’  While wind turbines, solar cells and even geothermal generators have started appearing at many cell sites in the developing world, they all lack in common easy or reliable access to the electricity grid. Where electricity is plentiful and access readily available—namely the developed world—operators have always opted to eschew alternative energy solutions in favor of hooking into the electrical grid.

But Alcatel-Lucent’s Frederic Wauquiez believes the industry is approaching an inflection point on green energy—one where the return on investment for alternative energy-powered cellsites matches that of electrically powered cell sites, which could prompt a new wave of solar-and wind-powered base stations, even in areas where an electrical connection is available. As the cost of traditional energy increases, the price of green technology falls and networks become more efficient, using alternative energy to provide all or part of the energy at cell sites is becoming less prohibitive, said Wauquiez, marketing director of the green wireless solutions group at Alcatel-Lucent and project manager for the vendor’s Alternative Energy Program.

Alcatel-Lucent has been working with alternative energy in wireless for five years, but it has largely been a niche solution. To date, Alcatel-Lucent has deployed only 300 sites, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, which rely entirely on alternate fuels. But in the last year, there has been a surge in interest in those technologies, primarily from operators in those same regions looking to avoid the enormous costs of transporting diesel to their remote cell sites but also unexpectedly from customers in mature industrial regions in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

“At the end of last year, we realized that this market will be accelerating quite quickly, but not just in rural areas of emerging markets,” Wauquiez said. “Much sooner than we expected, we’re seeing interest from customers in on-grid situations, where they have access to electricity.”

Their interest has been piqued by simple economics. Electricity is a large part of an operator’s operational budget as it feeds massive quantities of power to a highly distributed network of cell sites to support not just the base station power amplifiers and radios on-site but also the air-conditioning units necessary to power them. The increase in energy costs is being largely offset with the increased power efficiencies of most vendors’ equipment. The huge site cabinets are being replaced with compact modular base stations, which not only consume less power—the current generation of equipment has cut power consumption between one-third and one-half—but also require far less cooling. Many new radio systems also are coming equipped with energy-saving software, which powers down the base station during non-peak hours or when relatively few customers are on the cell.

But those energy efficiencies may serve to promote green energy sooner rather than push it off to a later date. By reducing the number of kilowatt hours consumed by the site, solar and wind solutions suddenly become more feasible as less power-generating infrastructure is required to power the site, Wauquiez said. Furthermore as the market for alternative energy solutions grows in other industries the cost of the technology goes down for telecom, sending the price of solar panels and wind turbines down. Combining those trends with regulatory and political environments favorable toward green energy—such as the cap and trade emissions program proposed in the US--the economics of off-grid power at the cell site start comparing to the economics of on-grid sites, Wauquiez said.

“As soon as 2010, there will be some good return on investment cases for alternative energy at the cell site,” Wauquiez said. “What we are sure of is next year there will be big rollouts in the emerging markets. We didn’t think that would also be the case for developed markets, but we may see some operators roll out alternative energy sites in 2010.”

A lot has to be done before those volume rollouts can occur, though, primarily optimizing green energy solutions designed for other industries for the specific needs of wireless, Wauquiez said. Alcatel-Lucent launched its Alternative Energy Program in February with the objective of tailoring solar, wind and fuel-cell technology for wireless cell sites, creating a mass-produced solution that can scale to 100,000 sites by 2012. In June, Alcatel-Lucent opened up an energy lab in France where it is now running pilot networks using such technologies.

Building alternative energy-fed networks involves much more than slapping solar panels on the side of a tower, Wauquiez said. New site planning techniques are key since arrays of solar panels and turbine masts have much larger and varied footprints. The site would require new power control and remote capabilities to deal with fluctuations in the power source resulting from changes in weather as well as the management of multiple power sources on the same site. Back-up power will become critical as solar cells go off line when the sun sets or wind turbines stop spinning when the breeze dies.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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