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Overcoming Off-grid Power Problems for Rural Connectivity

By Rami Reshef

Mobile network operators find advantages in using the latest fuel cell technology to power cell sites to connect rural communities, improve people’s lives and increase telecom profits.

A GenCell fuel cell suspended from a mechanical arm on a delivery truck.

For those who travel through mobile black spots or areas of poor coverage, wireless service interruptions often are only short-term annoyances or inconvenience. But for those who live in rural locations around the world — some 1 billion people — poor or no mobile reception can have a serious and detrimental effect on their lives and businesses.

It is staggering to think that in 2018, 14 percent of the world’s population had no electricity, telecommunications or basic services. Of these people, 84 percent live in rural communities. In an increasingly connected world, the pressure on mobile network operators (MNOs) to improve communications networks is huge.

A new, affordable fuel cell technology promises to solve the big problem of supplying power to telecommunications towers in rural communities lacking electricity supplied by utilities. The new fuel cells use breakthrough technology that is 100 percent clean (no CO2emissions), is cost effective and only needs refueling and maintenance once a year.

Not only will it save energy service companies (ESCOs) money, but it will also allow MNOs to attract more business while increasing communication among and with consumers to transform their economic development, education, health and quality of life.

According to GSMA Intelligence, 2G digital cellular communications coverage reaches more than 90 percent of the global population in most mature markets and in many emerging ones. Compared with 2G, the 3G wireless communications coverage with faster data transfer rates reaches 60 to 70 percent of the global population. GSMA Intelligence is a source of mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts. It is run by GSMA, a membership organization representing mobile operators worldwide.

GSMA Intelligence published global market figures in its 2014 report, “Mobile Access — The Last Mile.”

Unreliable Connections

In a survey of 1,465 companies in its 2017 “Digital Economy Survey,” the British Chambers of Commerce found that 29 percent reported unreliable mobile internet connections — with the figure rising to 54 percent in rural areas.
Although the potential cellular service revenue lost because of poor or nonexistent rural connectivity is difficult to estimate, a conservative estimate puts it at hundreds of millions of dollars globally.

So, if the business opportunity is seemingly strong, what are the barriers to rural connectivity? First, remote areas tend to be less populated and less affluent. In addition, planning laws in many countries restrict the erection of monopoles or limit the maximum height of mobile phone towers. However, one of the largest problems in rural locations is the lack of an electrical grid to cost-effectively power mobile phone towers.

Cost of Grid Electricity

For many cellular carriers, the cost to extend utility electricity to an off-grid tower is simply too expensive. In some circumstances, companies have installed diesel generators to provide the necessary power. However, they need regular maintenance to ensure their effectiveness, which means that two generators must be installed so one is operational while the other one is offline for maintenance. Managing these diesel generators requires time-consuming and expensive monthly maintenance visits to each tower. For larger businesses, this could represent many hundreds or thousands of towers. What’s more, there is also a growing trend for diesel generators to be stolen, causing significant disruption and additional cost.

The combination of vast and difficult-to-service areas, with the lack of a grid or a reliable power alternative, has made the rollout of rural networks essentially unaffordable. Furthermore, the cost to establish rural towers is not covered by incremental revenue from a low-volume, rural customer base. When you also consider that many businesses are now also seeking alternatives to diesel to reduce their carbon footprint, you can see that rural networks are a complex challenge for the industry.

Significant Numbers

GSMA estimates that by 2020, the global telecom industry will have deployed approximately 390,000 off-grid telecom towers, with 790,000 towers in bad-grid locations — so the numbers are significant.

The report also suggests that if these towers continue to use diesel, as is the case for more than 90 percent of them, diesel consumption for telecom towers will increase by 13 to 15 percent from today’s levels to over 150 million barrels per year. The resulting annual cost of diesel will be over $19 billion in 2020, or $5 per mobile-phone user per year. In addition, about 45 million tons of CO₂ per year will be released, which is an increase of more than 5 million tons annually.

More importantly:

·     Converting to more efficient, greener alternative tower power solutions could save the industry $13 billion to $14 billion annually, even after capital expenses.
·     Adopting green technologies at this scale could reduce carbon emissions by 40 million tons and save $100 million to $500 million annually.

So, the environmental factor is incredibly important. The business opportunity to achieve considerable savings while increasing customer service and tapping otherwise lost revenue is no less substantial.

One of the greener power alternatives is the modern fuel cell. And according to many, it is just around the corner, ready to revolutionize the telecommunications market.

What Is a Fuel Cell?

NASA pioneered the use of alkaline fuel cells in the 1960s to provide the electricity to power spacecraft of its Apollo program.
In the early days of fuel cell development, the promise of the technology was huge, and many businesses were attracted to its distinct benefits. However, as scientists tried to commercialize the technology, problems with scalability and manufacturability became apparent.

But, as with most technology introductions, many types of fuel cells have since been designed and refined, and the early problems have been resolved – principally fuel cell affordability as reflected in capital expenses and operating expenses.
Today, hydrogen-based fuel cells provide backup power in a variety of markets including manufacturing, energy, homeland security and telecom networks.

Primary Power Fuel Cells

These fuel cell solutions continue to be well received and are being adopted, but the world has also been waiting for a mainstream energy solution for a host of primary power applications.

Imagine being able to power off-grid telecom towers with a solution that doesn’t require diesel, and one that is cheaper, cleaner, more secure, ultra-reliable, and only needs maintaining and fueling once a year.

In 2018, GenCell introduced a new fuel cell technology for mainstream power. Currently in the final phase of field testing, this new solution brings the total cost of ownership for fuel cell power to a price point that takes it from a backup power solution to mainstream power for off-grid applications — with all the added benefits that fuel cells deliver.

Huge Opportunity

What does this mean for the telecom industry? Well, if nothing else, huge opportunity: 53 percent of the world’s population is still not online, with 22 percent of that figure attributed to developed countries.

In remote areas with extreme weather, such as in Brazil with its high humidity or Canada with its extreme cold, telecom providers often struggle to provide communities with a reliable and continuous telecom network. Fuel cells could bridge that gap and revolutionize telecom tower reliability, offering uninterrupted service in temperatures from −40°C to +45°C (−40°F to +113°F).

In some cases, this is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have technology, where, for instance, being able to make a call to the emergency services can save lives. In other situations, reliable access to the internet makes online banking and other services possible, significantly improving lives, businesses and economic prosperity.

5G Connectivity

With talk of 5G connectivity being the key to providing high-speed broadband internet service in the future, you can see that solving off-grid power issues will become paramount to all — but especially to energy service companies that provide power to towers owned by mobile network operators and dedicated tower companies. These businesses are continuously under pressure to decrease energy costs and power represents as much as 60 percent of annual operating expenses.

Industry Milestone

In a world that increasingly relies on immediacy and connectivity for social requirements and business opportunities, solving the off-grid power problem will be an important industry milestone. Fuel cells can provide the 100 percent sustainable, reliable and cost-effective power needed to get rural areas online and talking.

Rami Reshef is CEO of GenCell. For more information, visit www.gencellenergy.com.

This article originally ran in the May issue of AGL Magazine.


Low-priced Fuel Cell Maker Snags $9.2M in VC Investments

A developer of new technology designed to make fuel cells less expensive has received an additional investment of $9.2 million in venture capital funds.

Israel-based CellEra is pioneering platinum-free fuel cell technology, designed to replace kilowatt-range battery packs and internal combustion engines. One of the initial product offerings will be 1-20 kilowatt-backup power-solutions for cell sites.

Vodafone Ventures and Carmel Ventures joined with the largest shareholder Israel Cleantech Ventures in funding the emerging clean-technology company.

Ziv Gottesfeld, CEO of CellEra, said in a prepared statement, “Beyond the available capital, Vodafone’s investment will serve to facilitate our approach to the telecommunications market place, and our ability to direct our cost-effective, clean-energy fuel-cell technology toward the requirements of global telecommunication operators.”

Ziv added that fuel cells, while recognized as a reliable renewable power generation source, have been hampered by high costs. CellEra’s goal is to substantially reduce these costs by eliminating the need for Platinum in the fuel cell stack.

The startup fuel cell firm reportedly has a prototype in action at Comm Scope.