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Green Open Access – Advancing sustainability in telecom

India’s critical telecommunications and broadband infrastructure runs 24×7 on a continuous and assured electricity supply. Electricity is critical for the operations (since it is obligated to provide 99.95 percent uptime) and survival of India’s telcos, whether it be their telecom towers, OFC systems, network operational centers, MSCs, submarine cables, servers, or data centers. With the advent of 5G and with digitization becoming a pillar of socio-economic progress, the energy requirements of TSPs only continue to increase. And given the spread of telecom infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country, energy costs, too, continue to increase substantially.

Given the energy intensity of India’s networks, and as responsible corporate citizens committed to protecting the environment, telcos are doing their utmost to achieve energy sustainability, reduce their carbon footprint via procurement of energy through solar/renewable energy (RE) sources and lower costs. The government, too, is pushing for renewable sources.

This is why India has committed to the Paris Accord that it will honor the following targets:

  • 175 GW from renewable sources by 2022 (100 GW from solar).
  • 450 GW from renewable sources by 2030.
  • Reduce carbon footprint by 33–35 percent by 2030 (over 2005) and meet 40 percent of electricity needs from non-fossil fuel sources by then.

In the rest of this article, I will elaborate on what support is necessary in terms of the telecom networks for India to go green in a sustainable manner.

The need and how to procure renewable energy
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, emissions from the digital sector will need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030.1

Estimated telecommunications GHG emissions (source: ITU)

Clearly, in the context of telecom, it is imperative to increase the use of renewable energy, and TSPs are going above and beyond in their efforts to do just that. On the positive side, the ICT sector accounted for 60 percent of renewable power purchases in 2021.2

However, from a network perspective, ~85 percent of all energy is consumed at the tower sites. With more and more data being transferred across networks, energy demand is increasing year-on-year. Energy cost is also a sizeable portion of telco OpEx.

The emission footprint of this massive network makes it increasingly vital to transition to renewable sources of energy. Telcos like Bharti Airtel are moving ahead and have started the important task of transitioning in the right earnest.

Airtel has taken the initiative to solarize towers and install solar technology to produce renewable energy onsite. This has resulted in generating renewable energy of 344,498 kWh.3 While the solarization of sites continues, deploying individual on-site solar solutions has practical limitations due to limited open spaces available at tower sites, limitation of optimal solar radiance, and O&M restrictions. This makes the initiative unscalable.

This is where green open access comes in. Open Access implies that an electricity consumer is permitted to receive supply from any distribution licensee. It empowers consumers to choose renewable energy sources and helps contribute to India’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and fostering a cleaner future4. This is also the most scalable solution since it uses the existing transmission and distribution medium.

The Green Open Access policy gives the option to a consumer to enter into an agreement to purchase renewable energy directly from a producer rather than being limited by the energy provided by the local Discom. This can be used to power telecom sites in two ways: (1) self-generating renewable energy through off-grid methods, (2) procurement of green energy from the national grid/distribution companies (Discom).

To utilize open access, a minimum contract demand threshold of 100 kW at a site/location is mandated.

Evolution of Green Open Access in India
India’s Open Access Policy has come a long way since it was first introduced in the Electricity Act (EA), 2003, the Open Access Rules 2005, which later evolved into the Green Energy (Open Access) Rules, 2022 (GOAR 2022). It also lowered the minimum contract demand threshold from 1 MW to 100 kW so that even small energy users could utilize green open access.

The telecom sector has a unique energy consumption pattern as towers individually only consume 5–15 kW of power, significantly below the contract demand threshold of 100 kW. However, if seen collectively, close to 7 lakh towers result in the consumption of a whole lot of energy, with the requirement for energy being constant, which also ensures grid stability. But the 100 kW threshold for each site makes towers ineligible for Open Access.

This issue was remedied in May 2023 after the industry’s advocacy push, when the central government amended the GOAR 2022 allowing the 100 kW threshold to be met through single connection or through multiple connections aggregating 100 kW or more located in same electricity division of a distribution licensee. The Ministry of Power also advised states on Implementation of Composite Billing Scheme for Multiple connections like TSPs to facilitate One DISCOM, One Bill, One Payment solution, which would obviate the logistical complexity involved in handling hundreds to thousands of bills under each Discom.

While the central agencies did make amendments, these have not filtered down to state-level. And it is imperative that they do so. The industry has been working assiduously with stakeholders to make it workable at state-level and, as of now, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, J&K & Ladakh, Telangana, Arunachal Pradesh, and Jharkhand have adopted the central rules.

However, challenges persist in its implementation. Firstly, states/UTs must amend their primary and subordinate rules to align with the central rules. Secondly, telecom towers are connected on low-tension (LT) lines and use smart meters. The metering regulations for Open Access require time-differentiated measurements of parameters in the meter (in blocks of 15 minutes), which only apply to HT lines – this means deploying ABT meters. This is an unnecessary requirement not only because the cost differential between the two types of meters is high, the telco consumption on LT lines does not need the expensive ABT meters, which is why it would be appropriate for the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) to allow smart meters for towers connected on LT connections.

Furthermore, load aggregation and composite billing would only be made possible if amendments were made to the billing systems being used by the Discoms. SERCs and Discoms therefore need to prioritize software and systems transition.

Lastly, and most importantly, the 2022 rules specify5 a range of charges and levies permissible on Open Access. States need to align their levies with these central rules.

Industry efforts
With the advent of 5G connectivity and widespread digitization, the energy intensity of the telecom and broadband network is only going to continue growing. Airtel, for instance, has taken a number of steps to drive sustainability in its network and is continuously exploring more avenues for reducing its carbon footprint and Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions.

Globally, open access has gained prominence. For instance, in the US, states like California have adopted policies such as direct access and community choice aggregation (CCA). Meanwhile, the EU’s renewable energy directive promotes Green Open Access by enabling consumers to choose their electricity suppliers, including those offering renewable energy. In Australia, the National Electricity Market (NEM) allows large consumers to have Open Green Access.

Open Access to green electricity can be an effective means of achieving sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint in a scalable manner.

This is important since telecom networks provide not just voice, SMS, and data services to consumers but also growing enterprise applications like factory automation, robotics, and IoT. With connectivity becoming an essential layer for transformational applications and Industry 4.0, the telecom industry will need all the support possible to transition successfully toward affordable renewable energy.

The way forward
The path for TSPs to run their network energy through renewable sources is still not straightforward. And nor will it be until the Central OA Rules, 2023, are fully adopted and implemented at the state-level.

If India is, therefore, to go green in a sustainable manner, the Central and State Governments should ensure that the Electricity (Promoting Renewable Energy through Green Energy Open Access) (Second Amendment) Rules, 2023 announced on May 23, 2023, are fully adopted by all States. The State Governments, the CEA and SERCs should amend the Secondary Rules impacting Green Open Access with respect to metering, composite billing, scheduling, etc. to ensure that TSPs are able to transition to Green Open Access. Discoms should ensure that they have the necessary infrastructure to support demand aggregation and composite billing requirements of TSPs. The scheduling and forecasting for Open Access users should be relaxed for TSPs and tower companies. And the levies and charges of OA should be rationalized in order to make it economical to adopt renewable energy.

5 Clause 9 of the Electricity (Promoting Renewable Energy Through Green Energy Open Access) 2022

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