Rajesh Kaushal: We have been present in India’s telecom power system market for more than the last 20 years, and, today, we command around 60% share of this market. So, telecom power systems is one of the predominant businesses within Delta India.
Since the start of this business way back in 2000, we have done approximately one million installations of telecom power systems in the country. These installations are primarily into power conversion systems, battery solutions, renewable energy solutions, and cooling solutions for outdoor cabinets.
What’s the case for telecom towers to transition to renewable energy?
After the capex is invested into a telecom tower by an operator, Opex (operational expenses) becomes its largest cost. And within Opex, energy is the largest cost.
Telecom towers are all across the country, including very remote locations. While power availability and power reliability in the country have been improving, power becomes a challenge for running telecom operations in every nook and corner of the country, especially remote areas, rural areas, and difficult terrains like hills. To deal with this, telecom operators use diesel generators along with grid supply.
So, the balance is currently being delivered by diesel generators, and also by a combination of batteries put on the telecom tower. Diesel generators not only pollute [the environment] but also bring lots of challenges to telecom operators and companies in terms of their management in remote locations. These generators need to be filled with diesel on a day-to-day basis to run the operations. Further, they are vulnerable to diesel theft or tempering.
To deal with this, one viable option is renewable energy such as solar, which could be deployed on the telecom sites.
Over the last decade, there has been an increased acceptance of renewable energy on telecom sites.
Lots of trials and lots of proof-of-concepts have been done and they have been successful. But one big limitation to deploying these renewable energy systems [for powering the telecom tower sites] is the return on the investment. Now, with the technology growing by leaps and bounds and economies of scale coming into place, renewable solutions are becoming a more acceptable solution for telecom sites and the return on investment is also improving.
So, in the last three to four years, we have seen an increased interest in renewables from almost all the large operators and telecom tower companies, to minimize the use of diesel generators.
With a combination of good grid, battery, and solar solutions, most of the sites are being converted into green sites and the generators are being removed from those sites.
How many telecom tower sites have been solarized so far in India?
As of now, approx. 20% of sites have been solarized in the country. Operators like Jio and Airtel are focusing more on site solarization either directly or through tower companies. BSNL has not installed solar in a big way as yet but has big plans for solarization in the coming years.
So, I would say the speed of solarization is very fast. Currently around 2,000 to 3,000 sites are being solarized per month.
Delta being a pioneer in telecom power conversion and management has multiple products in its kitty including the most important element in site solarization – MPPT charge controller. This is a power electronics element that helps the power harnessed by the panels to be made usable to the telecom sites.
No. 2 is a smart controller. Whenever you deploy a solar solution to a telecom site, you need to also deploy a smart controller at the site. The controller can manage multiple available energy sources at the site and optimizes them to the most efficient level. For example, a smart controller will try to maximize the utilization of the solar power generated. It will try to prioritize solar power as the first source, then it will try to use the grid, which is the most economical source of energy at this moment. Then, in case the grid supply is not available, and if the solar is also not available, it will try to manage the site with the battery power. Eventually, if nothing is working out, it may try to go to the conventional source of energy like diesel generators and things like that.
Thus, a smart controller also helps to manage the overall site operation most efficiently.
How has been your experience with these installations? What specific challenges have you faced?
Solar was always a preferable solution for the telecom industry. But high Capex and the return on the investment in solar installations were one of the challenges. I think this challenge is being dealt with efficiently by the entire ecosystem.
The second challenge to deploying a solar solution on a telecom site is that we need to have sites that can accommodate a renewable solution at the site. So, we have to reconfigure the site, or we have to find a site where the solar panels can harness the solar available. So, if the sites are in very remote locations, then we have to ensure that there is enough solar [irradiation] availability. There is no shade and the land parcel can accommodate a large solar deployment.
In the past, we have seen that after the surveys not every site was qualified to put solar, because not every site possibly could have delivered the best utilization of the capex. So that was another operational challenge.
The third challenge is on the supply chain side. In the last two to three years, especially during the Covid times, semiconductor availability was a challenge. We have been efficiently able to deal with this challenge for the supply chain of MPPT power modules, which is an active element or the primary power electronics element.
Another challenge is the operational challenge. When we deploy solar solutions in far-flung areas, where the objective is to reduce the use of diesel generators, there is an ecosystem that works against us. We see the tempering of the solution to not let it run effectively on the site.
But then, with improved automation and remote monitoring of these solutions, such challenges can be dealt with efficiently.
Don’t you think the engagement of rural communities can help in such situations?
Yes, there are complementary factors. Like, in some rural areas, some organizations are working on the microgrid application or some organizations are working under the Resco business model to create a solar solution that would power the telecom tower and also provide some excess power to the community. So there is always a synergy in these microgrid solutions or in Resco solutions which would benefit the community at large besides powering the telecom solar sites.
The numbers shared by you show that private telecom operators have been more forthcoming in solarizing their telecom tower sites.
In the past, that was a situation. But now I would like to mention that the Government of India is trying to revive BSNL as an operator. It has invested around $25 billion into BSNL to make it operational, more competitive, and sustainable in the coming years. With that kind of investment going into the spectrum allocation, and into the capex investment for the 4G rollout, we’ll see lots of investments into the renewable installations as well.
We expect that BSNL’s 4G rollout will bring an opportunity of approximately, 100,000 sites to be rolled out across the country from BSNL. This would primarily be done through various tenders that they have launched, whether it is the 4G deployment project that is being awarded to TCS, the 4G Saturation Project, which has been awarded to some leading system integrator in the country, or the 4G left-wing extremism (LWE) project that has been initiated by BSNL to provide coverage in the left-wing, extremist areas, in remote areas or in terrorist-impacted areas.
And there is a Universal Service Obligation Fund initiated by the Department of Telecom which helps to subsidize or help fund all these remote installations.
So, we see that some of these initiatives by the Government of India in the BSNL area will also bring lots of opportunities to solarize telecom towers. I estimate that at least 10,000 to 15,000 sites would be solarized by BSNL in the coming few years.
What’s the share of solar power solution in the entire telecom tower site capex?
It should be in the region of 15 to 20% of the entire site capex because site capex includes the cost of the tower, power management solutions like DC power solutions which we supply, batteries, outdoor cooling solutions, and solar solutions, which again need an MPPT power module as an electronics component.
What’s your strategy to bring down the cost of solar solutions?
Our ‘make in India’ program, whereby we are planning to manufacture power electronics and power modules in India, is one step towards improving the capex because today, when we import, our forex becomes a big deterrent because the forex is very high. The dollar is playing around 82. So, manufacturing these solutions in India will bring improvement in our cost.
Secondly, our solutions being global solutions and our products being global products, we are trying to play on the economies of scale. If we club our scale in the India region with that of our global region, we can improve our costs from economies of scale.
Thirdly, our products are already available on most of the telecom sites. I would say Deltas’ one or the other equipment would certainly be there on each of the telecom sites. So, when we deploy these solutions, there is a synergy of services that we can offer to our customers in terms of installation, commissioning, operations and maintenance, or after-sales support.
As we are already present there, there is very little or no incremental cost for us to provide the services.
So, to bring down the capex, we are looking at localization, economies of scale, and providing synergetic services in the sites where we are already present in one or the other form.
Do you see the 100% solar-powered telecom tower sites becoming a norm?
Absolutely, I think that’s the direction. This is one of the major initiatives which is being driven by most of the tower companies and also by the operators. And I’m sure they are investing very heavily because one good thing with solar is that the life of solar installations is quite long. Solar panels and the structure can sustain for good 25 years. Of course, power electronics has a life of 10 years. So any investment that we are making into the solar system will pay back in the long run.
The objective of making the sites green is also driven by ESG initiatives of Telecom Operators as Solar would largely replace diesel gensets to declare site as green.
The improvement in terms of capex reduction is also supporting this cause.
So, I’m sure that in the next two to three years, at least 90% of sites could be solarized, and that will be a big achievement for the entire telecom industry.
The interview was published in PV MAGAZINE