Orun Energy’s low-cost base station achieves 60% energy savings in tests with Ghana’s Kasapa

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Africa now has its own home-grown low-cost base station producer. Long-time innovator Joe Jackson has teamed with Kwabenah Smith to push Orun Energy (Orun means sun in Yoruba) from promising start-up to successful company. By re-engineering the base station, it claims to be able to produce a 45% reduction in CAPEX and a 55% reduction in OPEX. Russell Southwood spoke to Joe Jackson about how it goes about achieving these savings.

Established in 2005, Orun Energy has set out “to develop innovative off-grid power solutions for telecoms in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are aimed both at rural and urban locations for as Orun says its seeks solution to the “epileptic urban power distribution due to overloaded transformers.” Founder of SoftTribe Joe Jackson got involved because Kwabenah Smith had been a founding mentor for his company but left before it became successful. Smith was the originator of the idea and Jackson sees himself as the catalyst to move it along.

As Jackson tells it:”The idea is very simple. The telecoms companies produce a lot of energy in their base stations. A company like MTN in its published accounts for 2006 identified that 21% of OPEX is spent on energy costs. The power supply is so poor that the question is: how do I reduce costs?”

The design for the original GSM base station originated in Scandinavia and not much has changed since then. The equipment has to be kept at 22 degrees and as a result there is a tremendous amount of cooling in the African context. The equipment all runs on DC at 48V. There is a diesel generator which also powers an inverter which charges a battery. The equipment works off the battery and this approach is fairly ubiquitous across Africa.

Orun has sought to address these issues by adopting a three-pronged approach: thermal management, hybrid power and oil and fuel management. The first of these approaches addresses the problem of cooling and how to reduce its costs. Orun insulates the base station container by using cold room technology. In addition, it uses ceramic paint (to absorb solar heat) and puts in Phase Change Material that equalizes the temperature by both absorbing and giving off heat when required.

The base station usually uses AC standard room equipment. When it kicks in, there is a huge power spike at its start-up. Whereas a grid can accommodate this power surge, the diesel generator has to be big enough to accommodate it and this is a fairly inefficient way to run air conditioning. Orun has switched the AC to di-current cooling which avoids this start-up spike: the AC can also run off the battery. It is also designed as a sealed room to be run off a battery bank so that warm air can be drawn off the top and cool air inserted at the bottom.

According to Jackson:”All the generator does is charge the battery. If the BTS is on the grid, these will power it until the grid resumes supply. The battery can run for eight hours then the diesel generator runs it for four hours whilst also recharging the battery, which can then run for another eight hours. It’s a balanced system.” It also has a system to keep the diesel fuel clean of water and bacteria to improve its efficiency.

Orun has run a two week test with Ghana’s mobile operator Kasapa (now owned by Expresso). As Jackson tells it:”Bob Palitz, the CEO used to be an engineer and therefore understands our approach. There was a need to verify what we were doing and to see whether it would work operationally. He gave us a test site where we could put out equipment alongside existing equipment. It put equipment in our shelter.”

The test ran for two weeks but what did Orun learn?:”Our solution works almost too well. The shelter was colder than expected and there were in excess of 60% savings. So it was both green and very efficient.”

The company is not yet in the production phase but is negotiating a deal with a South African BEE venture capital company for US$10 million that should be finalised at the end of October 2008 that will allow it to produce units in both Ghana and South Africa.

What about competitors?:”The real competitor is an Indian company called VNL. It’s the only one that really comes close to what we have and it’s doing fantastically well in India. We hope to replicate VNL’s success in Africa.”

The Global Green Telecom Summit is being held 11-12 November 2008 at The Westin Grand Hotel, Berlin, Germany.