How service providers can play a role in advancing a more sustainable energy future

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All service providers have to be conscious of the effect of their networks on the environment. It’s also true that much is being done to guarantee energy efficacy across the cellular landscape.

And, going forward, it seems likely that TowerCos and neutral hosts will lead the charge. This is because tower companies and other neutral hosts typically have long-term lease agreements with MNOs, spanning several years. This long-term perspective encourages them to invest in sustainable practices that yield benefits over the lease duration, aligning with global sustainability goals. In addition, it makes business sense for tower companies to prioritise efficiency in tower operations and energy consumption.

A combination of switching to renewables, modernising equipment and fully utilising the energy-saving-by-design capabilities of advanced, intelligent mobile networks can immediately make a positive difference. Network sharing and neutral hosts offer similar promises as ways to minimise equipment rollout and thus power usage.

But what if there were a way not just to save energy but to share it? That is, to ensure that almost every watt is either used effectively in the network, or excess energy is exported back to the grid. That would be truly transformative: service providers would be playing a pivotal role in advancing the global transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future.

Real Wireless believes that energy costs can be reduced without impacting service delivery. How? By service providers adopting technologies which enable networks to become virtual power plants (VPP). This may sound futuristic. It’s not. The concept has existed for a long time. However, thanks to the smart grid and AI it’s becoming less complex, expensive and technically demanding to carry out.

In Finland, service provider Elisa has made its mobile network part of the national virtual power plant (VPP) infrastructure. Now its AI-driven Distributed Energy Storage (DES) is not only saving Elisa money, it’s also having the unforeseen benefit of knocking a few percentage points off the average Finn’s electricity bill.

One of the principal financial benefits of the system for Elisa is that it facilitates “load-balancing”, which means the network optimises its energy consumption, buying energy at night when it is cheaper and using it during peak times when prices are higher.

Elisa also developed its own cloud-based AI/ML system to continually analyse when best to store or sell energy and at what price, based on Elisa’s network’s needs, as well as movements on the external energy market. To do so, it drew on its experience of being an early industry leader in using ML/AI to automate its IT network operational system.*

A VPP is a network of decentralised, interconnected distributed resources, including wind, solar and hydroelectric plants, that can be remotely controlled to provide reliable power when energy production dips or demand rises. In the context of a smart grid delivering power across an entire region that could mean a network switching supplies from nuclear to fossil fuel to renewables depending on cost and availability. There is also the potential for storage when power isn’t needed.

That model also applies in the context of a mobile network and its base stations: ideally using wind, waves or solar but moving seamlessly to the main grid when sun, wind or waves can’t deliver the required levels of power. But that’s not all. Renewables, in particular, could be used more effectively if this approach could be combined with energy storage capabilities at the base station, lessening reliance on the grid.

There’s also a potential new revenue source for service providers. An intelligent energy management system will ensure that energy is stored when demand is low and exported back to the grid when demand is high. Renewable sources are falling in price and are better for the environment, but they can be quite unpredictable. This approach makes using renewables less tricky. It also helps power grid resilience by supporting the balancing of energy production and consumption.

A quick caveat: this approach may not be workable for the small number of sites in isolated areas with limited access to the grid. However, for the vast majority of sites, the incentives for a service provider to transform a network into a VPP are clear: energy bills can be kept down, unused power can be resold and networks have a hedge against energy price volatility. For the environment, the headline story is equally compelling: energy isn’t wasted and using energy much more efficiently helps reduce carbon emissions.

In both cases, it’s a good look for operators and neutral hosts. If service providers are using power sources – and especially renewables – more effectively and less wastefully they can project themselves, accurately, as leaders in sustainable practices and can attract environmentally conscious clients and stakeholders. But is this possible? Can all type of service provider play pivotal roles in advancing the global transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future? Yes, they can. In the present day, the technology to manage power more efficiently is more accessible and more intelligent than ever before.

However achieving environmental sustainability in mobile networks requires a systematic, long-term approach. There’s no magic bullet or single solution, but a tapestry of strategies and considerations that must be woven into network planning and operation. Both the mobile sector and policymakers share the responsibility for driving these changes, ensuring sustainability becomes an integral part of the mobile network industry’s ethos. National regulators should adopt internationally standardised regulatory frameworks to avoid fragmentation, while the industry should maintain a long-term sustainability roadmap that informs standards.

The Real Wireless team know how to support making it happen. Our expertise in sustainable infrastructure design, network planning and techno-economic analysis means we can combine effective engineering and planning for a truly compelling business model that is both future-ready and future-proof.

* Extract from: https://inform.tmforum.org/features-and-opinion/elisa-harnesses-ai-to-turn-ran-assets-into-virtual-power-plant-infrastructure