Panasonic joins quest for greener cell towers

Panasonic joins quest for greener cell towers

Courtesy of Panasonic
Panasonic's Phil Herman describes features of Green Tower, which could help mobile carriers save at least 10 percent on annual cellular network electricity costs.

One tradeoff of the world’s increasingly mobile mindset is the energy that cellular communications towers and wireless hotspots suck up to support all those transient connections.

The dilemma is acute both in emerging markets, where diesel fuel often must be trucked to remote sites to keep them running, and in established economies where energy costs are spiraling out of control. A new solution from Panasonic Eco Solutions and technology partner PowerOasis could have appeal in both scenarios.

The technology, called Green Tower, combines lithium-ion batteries with solar modules and management software to support sites with loads of 50 watts to 3 kilowatts. It can be used in both off-grid and on-grid configurations.

The intent is to help telecommunications carriers save 10 percent to 20 percent on their energy infrastructure costs annually, according to Panasonic executives.

“I would say that enterprise energy management is starting to buzz through the communications industry, and there aren’t a lot of options for the carriers,” said Phil Herman, chief energy engineer for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions. “There is very acute interest in what we’re doing.”

Initially, Green Tower will be sold into North America, with Panasonic managing the installation and maintenance. The company is using energy-as-a-service performance contracts to defray capital expenditures, said Jason Scharfspitz, vice president, M&A, strategy & structured finance for Panasonic.

“We take responsibility for the power, then offer it back to them at a predictable monthly charge,” he said. Carriers also can buy the technology outright, if they desire.

Efficiency drivers

According to Panasonic, electricity can account for up to 15 percent of the operating costs for a cellular network in mature markets. That number mushrooms to almost 50 percent in emerging markets.

It’s not the only big company attempting to tackle this challenge. Alcatel-Lucent has been pushing wind and solar as an alternative energy source for at least five years.

The GreenTouch Consortium is tackling the issue more broadly, addressing both wired and wireless networks with next-generation energy efficiency. Members include AT&T, Bell Labs, China Mobile, Huawei, Samsung and dozens of other telecommunications companies and research organizations.

One startup developing technologies specifically aimed at addressing mobile base station energy consumption is Eta Devices, which uses research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a jumping-off point. Its ETAdvanced approach focuses on more closely managing the power used to transmit signals, using only what’s necessary for given communications and cutting back on wasted heat energy.

Joel Dawson, Eta’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said the net effect is a much higher rate of efficiency for transmission equipment: more than 70 percent compared with rates of 45 percent for today’s best-in-class equipment. Eta figures this change could save at least $18 billion in annual utility costs for mobile carriers.

The company’s technology — described as a power amplifier — will show up in the form of radio chipsets for both mobile network infrastructure and for handsets. In a December interview, Dawson expected Eta to release samples by mid-2015.  

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