A hybrid wind and sun solution for base station energy that claims to cut diesel costs by over 90%

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With base station energy costs in Africa coming out at between US$30,000-60,000 a year, it’s hardly surprising that green energy solutions are becoming very much this year’s business decision for mobile operators. The price of diesel has already gone up due to exchange rate fluctuations and may go up more in the next three years. Russell Southwood talked to Christian Jonsson, General Manager, Middle East and Africa, Flexenclosure about the impact its hybrid E-Site product might have on holding down energy expenses.

One of East Africa’s larger mobile operators has 2,500 base stations in one country and 500 of these are off-grid. That’s a staggering US$30 million cost line every year and it’s not just the cost, there’s also all the management attention that goes into making sure all those base stations are fully fuelled and that the generators are maintained and operational. In places like Sudan, they fly diesel into some off-grid base station locations and in Liberia, diesel goes by boat and hand cart to some locations. And there are probably 500 off-grid base stations in each country in this situation.

The 90% diesel saving figure Flexenclosure’s Christian Jonsson claims is from an off-grid site with a small generator, a wind turbine and a solar array. The site has wind power for six months of the year and uses mainly solar for the rest of the time. The batteries on site store energy from all three sources and the small generator is there mainly as a back up to the two renewable sources. ( see graphic below)










The equipment has a control mechanism that optimises the charge and discharge cycle of the batteries. The whole range of equipment has a fifteen-year lifespan and will probably require a single maintenance visit annually. It includes a whole range of “tweaks” to extract the maximum energy and cost saving: for example, the base stations have free air cooling where external air is forced through a filter and the newer base stations and batteries can work at higher temperatures.

Although these kinds of savings can be made, the level of CAPEX is such that it still works best for a site that is a new build or an upgrade of an existing site. For as Jonsson puts it:”You need to look at the business case over 10-15 years and that’s not the case with a traditional (diesel-powered) site.” If a traditional site costs US$120,000 (including civil works), you’re adding US$70,000 to the cost for this kind of solution. But what you add in CAPEX, you take away in OPEX and after the initial pay-back, it just adds the cost savings to the bottom line.

Flexenclosure’s E-Site product is a year old and is currently in trials with Zain, Safaricom, MTN and Etisalat:”We’ve been in the telecoms space for 20 years and have strategic agreements with Ericsson. We’ve been doing switching sites in Africa for 10 years. We’ve had an explosion of interest and I think they’ll be many roll-outs this year.”

In some cases, they’ll be surplus electricity at the base station and this can either be used for community purposes (like allowing local people to recharge their cellphones) or sold on in some way. The charging sockets act as a simple kind of security device on the assumption that no-one wants to see a free recharging point destroyed or vandalised.

The longer-term challenge is how to simplify electricity licensing procedures so that this kind of surplus electricity can be sold (on a pre-pay basis) back into the communities surround the base stations. For example, a power utility like KPLC could buy and deploy the energy generating E-Site and sell its energy to operators and local communities. As ever, the key is whether operators would trust KPLC to do it and if they don’t, is it possible to licence a new breed of rural energy operators providing power commercially on this basis?

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The Internet Society will follow up this matter, but in the mean time I would like to make sure that no one in the community falls into this trap. Please let me know if you have any information concerning this.

Dawit Bekele, Regional Bureau Manager – Africa, ISOC
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