Got a Cell Phone? Your Cell Tower Needs a Microgrid

July 24, 2023
Ericsson, one of the largest suppliers of telecom infrastructure, wants to provide resilience and clean energy to its cell tower customers with clean microgrids.

Americans are becoming more and more dependent on cell phones for work, personal and emergency use. But without a microgrid backing up or powering their telecommunications provider’s cell phone tower, they could be left without their beloved connection to friends, work associates and family, especially because of increasing climate-driven power outages.

What’s more, cell phone towers are often powered by fossil fuels because they are often located in remote locations and require electricity. With no central grid connection – or an unstable one – remote facilities generally depend largely on expensive and polluting diesel generators.

Microgrids can provide a cleaner, more resilient and less expensive option, especially as cell phone usage increases. Mobile subscriptions of 5G are growing in every region and are expected to rise above 1.5 billion globally by the end of 2023.

Telecommunications provider to install clean microgrids

To address resiliency issues and the environmental challenges of keeping cell phone users connected, Ericsson, a multinational telecommunications equipment provider, aims to equip as many cell towers as possible with microgrids that include renewable energy and storage. The company, which holds 50% of the market share of installations providing 5G service, hopes to make an environmental impact on the telecommunications industry – and reduce energy costs, said Paul Challoner, vice president and head of network production solutions integration at Ericsson North America, which is based in Plano, Texas.

About 20% to 40% of a cell tower’s operational cost is energy, he said.

To meet its goal of decreasing the environmental impact of cell towers, Ericsson has begun offering customers its own microgrid solutions. Ericsson packages solar and battery products sourced from third parties and adds its own software, Challoner said.

Microgrid at 5G Texas cell tower expected to operate 24 hours during outages

Its first microgrid installation – a 5G site in Plano – includes solar, storage and controls that will allow the tower to operate for up to 24 hours during outages. The installation, which includes 2.4 kW of solar and 14.4 kWh of energy storage, aims to showcase the use of clean energy to boost resilience in portions of mobile networks most likely to experience grid outages. With microgrids, cell tower operators not only benefit from lower costs related to the use of solar and batteries, but the operators can also provide load shifting, peak shaving and demand response, which can provide income to cell tower operators, said Challoner.

In Plano, the cell tower operator owns the microgrid and receives any revenues associated with providing grid services. In Texas, microgrid operators can sell microgrid power to the grid when prices are high. In June, during a heat wave, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas saw prices jump as high as $4,000/MWh.

Microgrids for cell towers in rural areas

The first applications of Ericsson’s microgrids will be in rural areas, said Sashieka Seneviratne, director of sustainability, network product solutions at Ericsson North America. Ericsson is receiving strong interest from rural customers located at both existing sites and those planning new sites, she said.

“This will save a lot of money and provide resilience in rural areas, providing instant access for people who didn’t have it before,” she said.

In the future, Ericsson hopes to provide hydrogen generators and other forms of clean energy as an alternative to diesel, which is often used as backup, she said.

Microgrids have proven to supply critical resilience to cell towers.

In 2016, wind turbine provider Urban Green Energy – now V-Air Wind Technologies – began receiving inquiries from telecom companies asking for wind turbines. These were customers that were experiencing some of the highest levelized energy costs in the world by burning diesel all day and night. Microgrids became part of the solution.

After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2021, EarthSpark International temporarily de-energized its 100-kW community microgrid in Les Anglais to check for downed wires and await possible aftershocks. Fortunately for the residents of the town, the microgrid, consisting of solar, storage and diesel, did re-energize, providing power to a cell tower.

In Kentucky, a state study identified 558 ideal nanogrid sites and a dozen potential regional community microgrids that could provide resilience to critical facilities such as cell towers.

Resilient cell towers important to emergency responders

As stormy weather caused by climate change brings more and more outages, microgrids are becoming more important to the telecom industry.

“Cell sites are becoming more mission critical,” said Challoner. They’re especially important to emergency responders, he added. “That’s why grid resiliency is so important. It’s fundamental to daily lives to have a fully functional cell network.”

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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