Why telcos like Verizon emphasize efficiency over renewables

Why telcos like Verizon emphasize efficiency over renewables

Instead of solar and wind power, the rapidly growing telecommunications industry is increasingly turning to energy efficiency to reduce carbon emissions, a recent Pike Research report concludes.

"The focus of green telecom has swung strongly to energy efficiency," according to Pike Research. "While clean power is not to be discounted, operators (and thus suppliers) are placing much more emphasis today on curbing power consumption than on deploying green base stations."

Some examples? Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) plans include energy-efficiency standards programs at three-quarters of its facilities with 200 or more people. (The company is partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop energy-saving methods.) And Telefonica (NYSE: TEF) wants to reduce energy consumption in its operations – which account for more than 85 percent of its energy use and almost 85 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions – by 30 percent in its networks and 10 percent in its company offices by 2015.

The shift in favor of energy efficiency comes in spite of steadily growing prices for diesel and solar prices that have plunged in the past several years, according to the report, titled “Green Telecom Networks."

As companies spread into rural areas, the number of base stations that aren't connected to the electric grid – and therefore more likely to need their own power source – also has been growing. The GSM Association estimates that 75,000 new off-grid stations will be installed in 2012.

Still, diesel stations are often cheaper to run than those powered by clean energy, which – aside from solar or wind power -- can include hybrids, biofuels or fuel cells. “Green power is not feasible or economical at all locations,” research director Eric Woods said in a news release.

The performance and output of these technologies also can be hard to predict because of changing seasons and meteorological conditions. Renewable-energy base stations work in areas where the grid is inconsistent or not there at all, but may not perform as well at bigger sites in more populated areas, which have higher load requirements, according to the report. And some operators aren't willing or able to pay the high upfront cost for renewable projects.

Photo of telecommunications towers by kai4107 via Shutterstock.

Operators and vendors are concentrating on improvements in radio frequency amplifiers, switches, new network architectures and topologies, as well as fresh air cooling solutions, researchers found. Combined with green energy projects, Pike estimates that these steps will cut telecom firms' emissions to 251 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2016. That compares to 266 million tons of emissions in 2011.

Improvements are much needed for base stations and switching centers, which can account for up to 85 percent of an operator’s network energy use, according to the report. Aside from advanced technology, vendors are turning to network- and site-planning services, which can also reduce energy consumption. These improvements are spreading upstream and downstream: Vendors are paying more attention to their supply chains, and many contracts now require adequate take-back programs.

Technology advances and better practices, such as server virtualization, the decommissioning of inactive servers, and alternative cooling systems, are expected to further reduce emissions, according to the report. The telecom industry also can make significant cuts by taking steps such as sealing cable cutoffs, eliminating underused cooling plants, using hot/cold layouts better and powering off unused assets.

Researchers estimate that, by 2016, sustainable telecommunications-network-infrastructure investments will make up a $194 billion market, which will account for more than 61 percent of global telecommunication capital expenditures. And mobile networks will account for 65 percent of that market, according to the report. Pike also predicts that the Asia Pacific region will lead in green mobile telecommunications spending, dishing out 55 percent of the total spending by 2016, while Europe will follow at 21 percent.