Clean Energy to Power 4.5% of Cell Phone Base Stations


When there’s no power grid to connect to, cellular network operators in off-grid rural areas often use expensive and dirty diesel generators to power their base stations (the gear that manages wireless traffic at the edge of the network). But increasingly as carbon legislation comes into effect, as clean power technology comes down in price, and as phone companies factor in diesel fuel costs over the life of the system, network operators are turning to clean power as a growing option. According to a report out this morning from Pike Research, 4.5 percent of the world’s cellular base stations will run off of solar and wind by 2014, up from 0.11 percent in 2010.

In developing countries, the cost of hooking into the power grid can be pretty high: $8,000 per kilometer in rural Namibia, according to Kuwait-based Mobile Telecommunications Co. (MTC), and a figure Pike Research looked at more in a previous report, “How Mobile Networks Can Cut Carbon,” for our own GigaOM Pro (subscription required). That’s why the percent of cellular base stations that will use clean power in developing countries will actually be much higher than the developed world, at 11 percent, according to the latest research from Pike.

Many times these clean-powered base stations in developing countries are utilizing a hybrid option of both solar and wind, given both clean power options are variable (sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow). And in addition to a solar-wind combo, these base stations also need an emergency backup system that can kick in and that usually comes in the form of a fuel cell or a diesel or biomass generator.

So yes, at the end of the day that kind of hybrid system and backup power can get pretty expensive. Potentially two to three times higher than grid power, according to the GigaOM Pro report. But the cost of a straight diesel generator off-grid system can be high, too, when network operators factor in the costs of buying, transporting and securing the diesel fuel.

At the end of the day, our report notes that “[t]he first, and most effective, strategy for reducing energy consumption in mobile networks is to improve the energy efficiency of network infrastructure equipment itself.” Base stations actually make up 70 to 80 percent of the energy consumption from cellular networks, so it’s really important to reduce the overall energy consumption of the base stations, instead of just switching them over to clean power.

To check out the entire report on How to Cut Carbon from Mobile Networks, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

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