Telecommunications operators pledged, in various presentations made within the framework of the MWC, to drastically reduce the energy consumption of their networks per unit of traffic and to use much more energy efficient components, equipment and systems to the maximum, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality in 2040 or earlier. The essential contribution that digital technologies can make in achieving more sustainable development with a lower carbon footprint was also highlighted.
The GSMA, the association that brings together the majority of operators from around the world, has initiated the Going Green project, which will quantify the energy consumption of telecommunications networks and their level of efficiency, depending on the energy sources used, and will serve to evaluate the progress that is being made over the years. This tool, called Energy Efficiency Benchmarking, will be developed based on anonymous data provided by a group of operators. At the moment, there are seven operators participating: BT, DT, Etisalat, Globe, KPN, Smart and Vodafone, which cover 31 networks in 28 countries.
Globally, it has been seen that access networks (RAN) consume 73% of the total energy of the study participants. 27% of the remaining energy is consumed in the core of the network (13%), own data centers (9%) and other operations (5%). Primary energy efficiency in RANs was 0.24 kWh / GB in 2020 in the analyzed markets. As secondary data, a mobile connection requires an average of 14.8 kWh of energy during 12 months of operation while a site (antenna and link network) consumes 28,665 kWh during the same period.
The only solution to keep incessant data traffic and carbon neutral emissions is to reduce global energy consumption and use much more energy efficient technologies.
46% of the total energy consumed was supplied by renewable energies, another 43% by electricity from the traditional grid and 11% from diesel engines used to generate electricity, which is more concentrated in developing countries, with a less reliable electricity supply, the authors calculate. Naturally, these are average values, with a very high standard deviation (up to 10x) and which vary substantially according to the country, area or sector of activity covered. The intention of the project is to provide annual data with its variation and segment them further so that they are more useful and representative of trends.
Most of the energy consumption (73%) occurs in the link network; that is, in the process of providing mobile phone coverage to an area of thousands of square kilometers, transforming electrical energy into radio waves and receiving and processing signals in both directions. Although consumption in data centers is relatively low (9%) it is emphasized that only data centers owned by operators are counted. If those who manage large technology companies, which are increasingly participating, were added, the value would be much higher.
From a financial point of view, the study also concludes that an average network operator uses 141 MWh of energy to generate one million euros in turnover. If we take into account that the price of electricity is now, at maximum, around 90 euros / MWh, the cost that energy can represent for all the operator’s costs is relatively low, 12,500 euros to generate one million euros of turnover, 1.25%. But each time the networks support more data traffic, which means that the consumption of the networks will increase and the cost will be much higher, apart from being unsustainable from an environmental point of view.
The only solution is to drastically reduce energy consumption, especially per unit of traffic supported, either per connection, on-site cell or billing, or all at once. As highlighted in a conference organized by Huawei the day before the MWC was inaugurated, entitled “Green ICT for a Green World”, it is about using the full range of existing techniques and technologies to reduce drastically and without delay the energy consumption of telecommunications networks.
Digital technology for more efficient energy
The new generations of mobile telephony consume less energy for supported traffic. Thus, 4G networks are much more efficient than 3G and 5G much more than 4G. But it must be borne in mind that more and more data is being consumed, so it is not enough to reduce energy consumption per unit of traffic supported, but rather the global energy consumption of telecommunications networks must be drastically cut.
As one speaker said, it is not a question of applying space technology (“rocket science”) to achieve this objective, but of being much more energy efficient in each of the multiple components and equipment that reduce energy consumption in an absolute and with lower carbon footprint. The magic solution does not exist and will never exist: it must be achieved by applying small and large improvements continuously and at all levels.
For example, it is a matter of using more integrated power supplies and electronic components and systems, which will also generate less heat and less ventilation and air conditioning, especially in data centers, apart from more efficient cooling systems. Turning off the 2G and 3G networks will also reduce energy consumption and, of course, capture energy from the sun or wind and use rechargeable batteries for the night
The ICT industry can play a unique and positive role to accelerate the digital transformation of other industrial sectors and thus achieve lower carbon emissions
The use of information technologies will also make it possible to substantially reduce energy consumption. As David Li, president of Huawei in Western Europe said during the day, “although the information and communication technology industry now represents only 2% of the total emissions of the carbon footprint, information technology can be used to reduce global emissions by up to 20% ”.
“By integrating the bits in the watts, that is, the integration of digital technology in energy technology, much more efficiency in energy management can be achieved.” Advances in artificial intelligence, connectivity and cloud computing will allow the energy industry to be digitized, making it much more efficient, said the Huawei executive.
The MEP Susana Solís, who also participated in person at the conference, also highlighted the importance of information technologies for the green plans of the European Union. “Virtually every sector can benefit from digital solutions” to achieve greater energy efficiency. ” Carina Lopes, head of Digital Future Society at Mobile World Capital Barcelona, added that “achieving zero carbon emissions (Net Zero) is not enough: information technologies and the telecommunications sector have the power to lead and radically transform our society”.
The technical director of Orange Spain, Mónica Sala, commented that the operator’s plan is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 by reducing energy consumption in the network, increasing the use of renewable energy in the networks and relying more on the circular economy. In the last six years, from 2015 to 2020, Orange Spain has reduced the energy consumption of its mobile networks, expressed in kWh / GB, by 80%, based on network sharing agreements and the use of more efficient cooling systems and with lower energy consumption and more efficient network equipment.
Juan Manuel Caro Bernat, director of operational transformation of the Telefónica group, explained that they plan to achieve zero emissions by 2025. “We will reduce the carbon footprint as much as possible beyond the 1.5 degree scenario and neutralize the excess emissions with absorption projects. of CO2.
Blanca Ceña, manager of Vantage Towers Spain, also referred to the advantages that digital technologies can provide to change the situation in multiple industries. In the case of her company, she is using digital twin technology to reduce the number of visits to stations and she added that in her company they believe that 5G will be a substantial change, for society and Europe.
GSMA Climate Action Officer Steven Moore highlighted that telecom operators rely on green energy to help achieve goals in other sectors. And he sent a message to the governments: “We cannot make the change towards renewable energies alone.”
The information technology and telecommunications (ICT) sector consumes 4% of global electricity and 1.4% of global carbon emissions, as seen in the graph above. Steven Moore pointed out that the mobile telephony sector accounts for 0.4% of carbon emissions, or 16% compared to the ICT sector.
Traffic expansion mortgages carbon neutrality
James Crawshaw, from the Omdia Informa Tech consultancy, stressed that to reduce the carbon footprint, the industry must save energy and also reduce carbon emissions. The analyst presented a report, which maintains the need to use innovative strategies to achieve Net Zero information technologies.
From an energy saving perspective, the focus should be on reducing absolute energy consumption by consuming less energy and improving efficiency in the use of this energy. And from the perspective of reducing the carbon footprint, the measure to assess the degree of energy and environmental sustainability of the telecommunications network should be the carbon emission per unit of data served. But Crawshaw pointed out that a clear definition is needed to assess the progress of a management that reduces the carbon footprint.
As the various sections of the report make clear, “technology and nature must coexist harmoniously”. Global economic growth has largely been achieved so far with the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but if climate change is to be kept within controllable limits and without negatively impacting economic growth, countermeasures must be taken immediately, such as switching to The renewable energies.
The ICT industry is facing an explosion in demand for digital content and services. As the bottom graph of the report shows, global data traffic on mobile, fixed and wireless networks has grown and will continue to grow at a spectacular rate for years to come. Between 2018 and 2024, it will increase at an annual rate of 24%, calculates the consultancy, and will reach 5.8 million petabytes in 2024, compared to 1.3 in 2018.
This increase in traffic will place greater demands on the infrastructure and the information and communication technology industry, which will also see its carbon emissions drastically affected. “The use of green energy is the main alternative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; apart, the ICT industry should focus on reducing absolute energy consumption and using much more energy efficient systems ”. That is, optimizing energy use so that the demand for digital services can be supported while reducing CO2 emissions and potentially lowering operating expenses, the report emphasizes.
Telecommunications operators are fully aware of the challenge ahead and are becoming increasingly active, on a voluntary basis, when it comes to putting green energy use strategies into practice and reducing energy consumption. The table below shows some of the initiatives launched by operators, such as Telefónica, Vodafone and Orange, among those present in Spain.
Among the initiatives implemented are the transformation of the network, replacing old or disused equipment with other more efficient ones or the laying of copper by fiber optics; reduced need for air conditioning, increased start-up of standby modes while not in use; of electricity supplies at 400 V in direct current instead of the traditional 240 V (or 120 V in the United States) in alternating, more efficient; the sharing of the networks between several operators or the use of three types of electricity supply in the base stations (solar, batteries and traditional) in order to go to the most convenient one at all times.
As the report adds, although the entire industry has similar objectives when it comes to having a greener future, “the conditions to achieve this can be very different”, because they depend on the region, the climate and other specific factors. Therefore, it is desirable to have a metric that can compare the “green” situation of the different networks, such as the energy efficiency of a mobile network, expressed in bits / joules, for a given period of time, as proposed by ETSI, or the carbon intensity of a network, which is the result of dividing the total carbon emission by the total volume of data and expressed in kg CO2 / terabyte. In this last formula, the type of green energy used can be distinguished from the traditional ones.
In conclusion, the report indicates that many companies and governments actively promote being neutral in the use of energy, including part of the ICT industry, but warns that the measures must also have business and financial justification. IoT devices can help improve remote operations and maintenance and not consume as much energy, as well as migration to the cloud. Although it must always be monitored that the foreseeable increase in traffic with some of these measures does not imply an increase in energy.
With the use of advanced technologies in sectors such as agriculture, logistics, mining and manufacturing, “the information and communication technology industry can play a unique and positive role in accelerating the transformation process of other industrial sectors and achieving a higher level of digitization and lower carbon emissions “, concludes the Informa Tech report at the end, as it had also been shown throughout the day” Green ICT for a Green World “the day before the inauguration of the MWC of Barcelona. The strategy to follow is clear, the tricky thing is to move forward quickly enough.