Photograph — CFO India

Nigeria’s telecommunications industry is working hard to adapt to changing industry trends, intense rivalry and regulatory uncertainties. There is a general understanding that, to be sustainable, telecoms need to modernize existing products, diversify into new areas where capabilities and resources are available, improve general business processes and navigate the complex regulatory landscape effectively. There are enormous opportunities for the industry to develop new services, however, these will only be possible with an uninterrupted national power supply.

According to the 2017 World Congress on Engineering and Computer Science proceedings, power supply infrastructure plays a major role in running mobile networks with a benchmark network uptime of 99.98% required to maintain the reliability and quality of services. An unreliable and poor power supply to telecom tower sites hampers the efficient running of mobile network’s operations. The unreliable grid power supply in Nigeria has traditionally forced telecom operators and tower companies to rely heavily on diesel as their primary power source. 

At the recent Power and Telecommunications Synergy Conference sponsored by IHS Nigeria, industry experts agreed that policies and infrastructure needed to be put in place to enable the adoption of mini grids. Mini grids are one part of the solution helping to solve the energy challenges slowing the industry’s current progress. 

At the event, Mohamad Darwish, CEO, IHS Nigeria discussed the conference’s aim to explore the benefits of integrating power solutions into the National Broadband Plan and chart a roadmap for sector collaboration to stimulate the broadband growth as forecasted by the Nigerian Communications Commission. IHS Nigeria, IHS Towers’ largest subsidiary, alone has 16,000 sites powered by 16,000 generators. The amount spent daily on sustaining the power supply for these sites is likely to exclude diesel and routine generator maintenance costs. However, sustainability is evidently a key part of IHS Nigeria’s business, judging by their implementation of solar and hybrid power solutions across their tower sites. Such innovations both reduce costly overheads and decrease the company’s carbon footprint; another topic which featured high on the conference agenda. 

Mohamad Darwish, CEO, IHS Nigeria at the Power and Telecommunications Synergy Conference sponsored by IHS Nigeria.

According, to a  2014 Green Power for Mobile Market Analysis report, an undependable power supply to telecom tower sites impedes the efficient running of mobile network’s operations, it states, “An on-grid site consumes an average of +1,500 litres per month in Nigeria and 450 litres per month in Ghana. The higher diesel consumption of on-grid sites in Nigeria is due to the lack of grid power supply, making the diesel generator run longer every day”.

Responsive and responsible legislation should therefore consider the power challenges facing Nigerian telecoms; the current extraordinarily high diesel price and the comatose state of the national electricity supply. Speaking at the conference, Ikechukwu Nnamani, Vice President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) noted that Nigeria’s power supply is being sabotaged by groups looking to benefit from alternative forms of energy. Nnamani also noted that in other markets, operators relied solely on electricity from the national grid. He said, “In Nigerian telecoms, we consume almost 40 million litres per month to power telecom towers which are both financially consuming and pollute the environment further.” 

Mohamad Darwish, CEO, IHS Nigeria (center) and other stakeholders at the Power and Telecommunications Synergy Conference sponsored by IHS Nigeria.

In its search for alternative energy, Nigeria’s telecommunications industry must look towards new cleaner and eco-friendlier sources. Research has proven that the use of diesel generators as the default power source for off-grid and grid connected telecom tower sites comes with implicit disadvantages; namely, the high cost of power, diesel logistics and theft, as well as a negative environmental impact due to the high CO2 emission per kWh consumed. Thus, alternative energy sources are being largely encouraged. Solar energy, one of the most widely accepted forms of alternative energy is deemed the most suitable for distributed power generation, bringing power generation to where it is most needed. Unlike other sources of clean energy, it is widely scalable owing to its modular technology which can easily match a future increase in load. 

Globally, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia account for most of the world’s unelectrified population. A low rural electrification rate is common in many countries across both continents. The main challenge facing the universal electrification agenda is how to achieve mass electrification in the context of differing electricity network infrastructures, the cost of further grid extension and the possibility of electrification through a portfolio of off-grid solutions. On this basis, it was agreed by industry experts at the Power and Telecommunications Synergy Conference, that in the absence of an efficient national grid, there should be both on-grid and off-grid systems to serve the telecommunications industry. Against this backdrop, the business case for off-grid, renewable towers is increasingly favourable. 

Initially diesel generator sets would run 24 hours a day to generate a spinning reserve in case a solar array is shaded, or the wind speed reduces. Renewables can then be integrated so that the diesel generators automatically switch off during sunny or windy periods. If solar or wind outputs do not meet the tower’s power requirements, energy storage systems will kick-start back-up diesel generator sets. 

Increasing solar or wind power capabilities enables towers to be powered overnight or during less windy periods using the renewable energy stored in large amounts. Back-up diesel generator sets would only be required in cases of unfavourable seasonality. Innovative companies have developed models that combine renewable energy-based power generation for the benefit of telecom towers and their neighbouring villages. In short, powering telecom towers with renewables is a great opportunity, especially for towers in remote locations. Finally, recent price decreases of solar and batteries is enabling the replacement of diesel by such renewable sources. 

These ideas were discussed at length in October’s Power and Telecommunications Synergy Conference. It was the ideal forum for industry stakeholders to collaborate and review multiple approaches towards a sustainable energy system. The result was an engaging event with all parties working collaboratively to determine the most cost-efficient and effective method given the issues outlined here.

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