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Energy has Become a Key Part of Digital Infrastructure and a Key Part of Competitiveness

by Philip Kendall | Nov 06, 2020

Strategy Analytics joined Huawei’s Power Digitalization 2025 of BWS event last week, hearing from a number of telecoms operators about their journey to improve energy efficiency and manage energy costs both in terms of 5G network upgrades and data center requirements. As Huawei’s Zhou Taoyuan, President of Digital Power Product Line, noted, “Energy has become a key part of digital infrastructure and a key part of competitiveness.” In the 5G domain, the speakers discussed their site energy evolution, which covered the following broad trends that will make a significant contribution to running greener networks:

  • Transition from indoor sites to outdoor, from outdoor to ‘blades’: offering strong Total Cost of Operations (TCO) savings through this migration, from reduced need for cooling to energy savings from more compact site design.
  • Increased use of Lithium batteries: current lead-acid batteries have short 3-5 year lifecycles, are impacted by environmental conditions, and require quarterly manual inspections for safe use. Lithium batteries have a longer service life offering more charge/recharge cycles, and a lower TCO than lead-acid.
  • Increased use of solar power: Huawei continues its efforts to make solar a major power source. In some markets, this will also enable operators to serve local communities by selling on any excess power generated.
  • Intelligent power management: smart power control is an important step in improving energy efficiency, for example through the use of peak energy shaving through battery storage, and more efficient Operations and Maintenance (O&M) through intelligent power monitoring and control.

A key message throughout the session was the pressure on energy costs that the migration to 5G was bringing, alongside discussion of the opportunities that exist to upgrade systems and energy sources to better manage this.

Liu Baochang, Deputy Director of Information Energy Department at China Mobile Group, highlighted the cost implications of their deployment of 5G capacity. 5G has been developing rapidly in China, stimulating economic growth and boosting digital society, but China Mobile recognises the many challenges that need to be resolved for 5G success. The growth in the number, density and types of base stations brings many power supply problems, outlined as:

  • Construction costs of a 5G base station are 2-3 times that of 4G, with more than 5 times the number of 5G sites required to match 4G coverage in the long term.
  • Average power consumption of a 5G base station is 3-4 times 4G levels, with a single massive MIMO site consuming 5kW. Power consumption varies greatly in different operating states, but even a low-power mode runs at 50% of the total.
  • Challenges of site selection and often limited equipment room space and power supply capacity at existing 2G/3G/4G sites. 90% of the existing power systems need to be expanded and reconstructed as a result of inadequate infrastructure either in terms of AC power, distribution, cooling or backup battery.
China Mobile: 5G Drives Site Power Consumption Increase

China Mobile highlighted that the traditional telecom energy model of separated switch-mode power supply and storage batteries has not kept pace with evolution of network design - in particular the important role of distributed remote radio units rather than equipment installed in cabinets. Legacy power systems have been bulky, not intelligent enough, costly to maintain and so need to evolve. 50% of 5G base station sites lack space and 70% lack sufficient power supply capacity, making it difficult to roll out 5G networks at current sites.

China Mobile is moving towards a new 5G energy architecture and is implementing digital, integrated and intelligent energy conversion, storage and control to meet the need of all scenarios of communications networks including the core network, aggregation layer and remote sites. This includes the introduction of software-defined power functions and multi-input, multi-output (MIMO) power products. It has specified integrated energy cabinets for 5G networks, developing a solution that offers significant savings on site footprint and costs. Where China Mobile has renovated a typical C-RAN equipment room, this new solution integrates 11 cabinets into three by:

  • Replacing three traditional power modules with one MIMO power system;
  • Replacing two lead-acid battery units with intelligent lithium batteries, reducing the space needed by 60%
  • Installing precise air ducts to completely eliminate over-heating and crashing risks caused by baseband unit (BBU) centralization

China Mobile’s new solution has resulted in a 90% reduction in construction time, 60% footprint reduction, 30% CAPEX saving, and 8-17% gain in power efficiency.

José Pedro Nascimento, Network Director at Altice Portugal, explained how his company has designed a new site energy solution with Huawei, a single cabinet combining all the necessary site energy equipment offering easy modular expansion. This is an outdoor cabinet that has eliminated the need for air conditioning. It involves a modernised DC system that saves energy, reduces failures- as well as transition to lithium batteries that save energy, shave peaks. Altice has already benefitted from lithium batteries that have a longer service life, generate autonomous power at the site  and reduce thefts as lithium batteries are less attractive to thieves. Note: Portugal has a stable electricity grid but is subject to temporary power outage due to thunderstorms in winter and wildfires in summer. Altice is on a four-year program to upgrade the power systems across its network. So far, upgraded sites are not only delivering reduced costs and maintenance but also performance gains – specifically:

  • Uptime of ~100% through lithium battery power autonomy;
  • DC power efficiency of over 96%, up from as low as 80% at some sites;
  • Energy consumption decrease of 13%, with 10% reduction in peak hours.

We also heard from Li Yao, Deputy Director of NOC at China Mobile Pakistan (CMPak) which operates under the Zong brand. One of CMPak’s major priorities is to reduce its ‘energy cost per revenue Rupee (PKR)’ KPI in part through greater energy efficiency but also through fewer network outages that impact revenue generation. Its legacy power system involves:

  • Diesel generators (DG) used at 35% of sites, but consuming 55% of power costs, with 35% of DG sites also suffering from power failures;
  • An unstable power grid, with 35% of grid sites suffering outages of over 4 hours per day. On average, diesel generators are used 5.4 hours per day;
  • Lead-acid batteries, which are old and not providing sufficient backup, with 60% of sites down due to battery problems.

CMPak’s system upgrade phases in a number of elements through 2023, with timings shown in the chart below. This involves:

  • Removal of diesel generators
  • Replacement of lead-acid batteries with lithium batteries
  • Site digitisation to improve O&M efficiency
  • Introduction of Huawei’s PowerCube power supply solution, which combines power generation, control, monitoring, and energy storage in a single unit
  • Use of solar power

At sites where CMPak has already completed DG removal it has reduced site energy costs by 69%, saving US$7,000/site/annum. It has also delivered higher uptime, with the site power availability value (PAV) up from 96.32% to 98.35%, resulting in an increase in revenue per site of US$1,200/annum.

CMPak: Four Steps for Energy Target Network

From these examples across both developed and developing markets, it is clear that mobile operators need to focus on energy supply and maintenance costs as a key element in 5G expansion plans. The increased power requirements of 5G sites and the increased number of 5G sites being deployed do not currently sit well with operator goals to become net zero carbon generators over the next 15 to 30 years. An overhaul of site power and data center power should be a top priority for energy cost management and the achievement of environmental goals.

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