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The Power of Going Green

Sat, 05/30/2009 - 9:18pm
Maisie Ramsay

Cost savings drive carriers to seek eco-friendly solutions.

Read Wireless Week's Q&A With Marc Benowitz - Click Here

These days, you can hardly open a technical paper without learning about revolutionary solar panels, fashionable wind turbines or some other environmentally-friendly piece of infrastructure equipment. The green halo effect on corporations isn’t the cause, nor is altruism. It all boils down to money, energy savings and network performance.

Networks all over the world are taking on shades of green. Towers are being outfitted with wind turbines, base stations are more energy efficient, electricity use is being monitored like never before and reducing the carbon footprint has become as trendy as the iPhone.

Flexi base station
Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi base station was developed to work without the need for external air conditioning.

POWER IS THE KEY
Managing power is green network’s 800-pound gorilla. No matter where they are located, wireless networks are expansive, energy-intensive giants that account for a healthy percentage of network operating expenses. Everything from base stations to backhaul draws electricity from the grid, boosting costs with every watt.

In mature markets, operators see energy saving as a way to squeeze profit out of a price-competitive market. Sprint Nextel cut data center-related carbon emissions by 10,450 metric tons, cut costs by $20 million and freed up $28 million worth of redeployable assets thanks to a green data center initiative, which retired 127 applications and decommissioned or redeployed more than 2,239 servers.

Environmentally friendly solutions in emerging markets like Africa, China and India are valued more as a way to compensate for weak and unreliable electric grids than for their long-term cost savings.

“The most urgent demand is in emerging markets because electricity is so scarce there,” says Frederic Wuaquiez, marketing manager of Eco-sustainable Wireless Solutions for Alcatel-Lucent. He cites the need for back-up power in off-grid locations as an example of where cost savings and environmentalism coincide. “Where there is no grid, they use a diesel generator – but when you have a base station in a remote area running on diesel, energy comprises 35 percent of total ownership because of carrying the fuel to the generator and engine maintenance.”

Frederic Wuaquiez
Wuaquiez: Back-up power in off-grid locations is one place where cost savings and environmentalism coincide.

Wauquiez says that 65 percent of the cases in which a network isn’t providing telecom service are related to energy outages. For emerging markets, reducing the need for electricity is the first step toward preventing this.

A good example of this is in India, the world’s fastest-growing telecom market. Indian operators are faced with explosive demand and an exceptionally unreliable, overtaxed electrical grid. They’ve had little choice but to turn toward renewable alternatives to the grid and are using the latest in energy-efficient equipment to minimize their electricity needs.

Nokia Siemens Network, for one, has deployed its Flexi base station in the Indian market. Though it hardly needs an introduction, the Flexi is a hallmark of sustainable design and energy efficiency. It is so light it can be carried on foot and has survived tests in environments ranging from the heat and humidity of India to Canada’s frigid coasts. Most importantly for the Indian market, the Flexi was developed to work without the need for external air conditioning, typically bringing a 30 percent reduction in site energy consumption.

Wind-powered Tower Tube base station
The power consumption of Ericsson’s wind-powered Tower Tube base station is 40 percent lower than traditional base station sites.

Emerging markets also make ready use of renewable energy to supplement their network’s power needs. One of the most notable examples is Ericsson’s “Tower Tube,” an energy-optimized, wind-powered radio base station site. The design takes Ericsson’s existing energy-conserving Tower Tube and tops it with a four-blade turbine with five-meter blades that are vertically attached to the tower.

The wind turbine is an addition to the tower tube, an award-winning design that has a smaller footprint and lower environmental impact than traditional steel towers. The tube construction encloses base stations and antennas within a concrete tower. Carbon emissions related to materials, production and transportation are 30 percent lower with the Tower Tube design, which also has no need for feeders and cooling systems. The company reports that the tower’s power consumption is 40 percent lower than traditional base station sites.

THE SOFTWARE APPROACH
Eco-friendly network solutions extend beyond flashy, eye-catching items like the Tower Tube. Diminutive solutions like energy reduction algorithms, power modulation and network optimization software comprise an important part of network greening and have brought software companies into the eco-friendly fold.

Ricky Watts
Watts: Aircom was drawn in the eco-conscious market by its parallels with cost savings and network efficiency.

Network optimization firm Aircom was drawn in the eco-conscious market by its parallels with cost savings and network efficiency. “It was a business-driven enterprise that has a lot of alliances to going green and helping operators reduce costs,” says Ricky Watts, Aircom’s solutions and innovation director.

One of the company’s solutions is an asset sharing software that allows two operators to share assets, lowering operating costs, energy consumption, floor space and battery usage. The company is also rolling out an end-to-end planning and dimensioning tool that goes beyond a radio-based solution, ultimately reducing carbon emissions and power consumption.

“We take the model that we’ve got and treat it as a green initiative to help companies reduce carbon emissions,” Watts says. The company’s software is flexible enough to allow operators to optimize network performance around a variety of different goals, including reducing carbon emissions.

Subtle approaches like power modulation are also an important part of the greening of the networks. For instance, instead of maintaining a constant output regardless of network traffic, modulating that output to decline during periods of low use can create substantial power savings.

In the end, it doesn’t have to be glitzy; it just has to be green.

Q&A: Is Going Green Sustainable?

Marc Benowitz heads a team of environmental engineers at Alcatel-Lucent who have expertise in hazardous substances, recycling, energy efficiency, equipment lifecycle analysis – people who keep their eyes and ears tuned into the evolving role of green technology in society, regulations and Marc Benowitzthe industry as a whole. Wireless Week Associate Editor Maisie Ramsay recently spoke with Benowitz about the trend toward environmentally friendly telecommunications.

Wireless Week: The economy has boosted interest in green technology because of its cost-savings benefits. Does it have long-term resiliency?

Marc Benowitz: Do I believe the attention [to green technology] and its attractiveness is going to disappear in the next year or two? No. I think it’s going to be around for awhile. It’s our position that being green is good business. There’s increased attention on how much it costs to run a network… Being financially conscious and environmentally conscious are one and the same here.

WW: Is the pace at which green technology is evolving posing a problem for investment in terms of equipment obsolescence?

Benowitz: The question is: Do I make a change and how quick will that change be obsolete? One thing we have to consider is that it’s a lot easier to make something green, energy efficient and environmentally friendly when you start with a clean piece of paper. We are working on designs and products that are more energy efficient than today. But there’s a lot of investments that our customers have deployed already and it’s not necessarily environmentally friendly to swap all that out.

One of the things that we’re working on is how do we protect that investment and make the existing network more energy efficient. Consider the concept of modulating power based on traffic – base stations classically radiate power almost independent of traffic. We’ve developed and deployed a dynamic power capability. In the case of China Mobile, it saved up to 27 percent [on energy]. It modulates power based on traffic while maintaining quality of service. In addition, that software is going to work on base stations you’ve had going back 10 years. Low-impact upgrades, like this, are a good example of the type of thinking that you’ll see more of.

Getting back to obsolete – or end of life – we have refurbishing operations where we consider recycling and disposal as the last straw. We give products a second life and support refurbishing beyond Alcatel-Lucent products. That’s another way to protect the environment and mitigate the need to send stuff to landfills.

WW: What ALU innovations in this space are you most excited about?

Benowitz: The contribution of the ICT [Information and Communications Technologies] industry to the output of global carbon emissions is about 2 percent. That gives to two sides of the coin: the direct 2 percent contribution and how can ICT influence the other 98 percent?

Now, 2 percent is not a small number and shouldn’t be disregarded. With the growth of broadband services and the like, that number is expected to double in the next 10 years. So how do we stop that from growing and possibly reduce that 2 percent?

For the direct 2 percent contribution, we are rethinking how networks operate so that they lower energy usage, lower emissions and lower operating expenses for our customers. With thermal management a significant contributor to the power budget, we are investigating advances in such areas as heat sinks, liquid cooling, devices that on a microscale more efficiently transfer heat through a thermal interface. As mentioned previously, how can we modulate power consumption so that it’s based on traffic? You think of it across the whole gambit: a network that reacts to the traffic and adjusts as such.

Looking at the other 98 percent, it’s exciting to see the creativity on how ICT can be an enabler – the easy one being teleconferencing, etcetera, as a mitigation to travel. Now think beyond that… We’ve heard a lot of press on the stimulus package and the amount of focus on the utility sector, most notably smart metering and smart grids. The underlying technology to enable this is also ICT.

Another very impressive area is the work we’re doing in telemedicine, like remote diagnostics and smart surgery. You can use an expert in San Francisco to help someone halfway across the world.

Now, the real excitement is the people themselves. The interest and passion from researchers and developers, I’ve never experienced this before. This type of work you don’t have to beg people, it’s just the opposite, you get e-mails, calls from folks you never met before, asking how can I help. There’s a passion in the individual to make a difference. It’s mind-boggling; it’s such a privilege to see people work like that.

 

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