Ireland’s first self-sustaining mobile base station cuts emissions

3 Sep 2009

IRELAND’S second largest mobile phone operator, Telefónica O2, has revealed an ambitious plan to reduce CO2 emissions by 30pc by 2015 and has begun by using self-sustaining base stations to curtail its reliance on electricity and diesel fuel.

The company has revealed the trial results of what is the first self-sustaining mobile mast in Ireland at a greenfield site in Knockaleva, Co Louth. Using wind and sun energy to replace the need for a diesel generator, the site has removed 44 tonnes of CO2 emissions after less then a year in operation.

O2 has approximately 2,000 base stations in Ireland. The majority are connected to the country’s electricity grid and of these around 100 may be suitable to be completely self-sustaining.

The company is looking at technologies that will enable it to deploy further renewable energy solutions across a large number of grid-connected base stations to allow it to export energy back to the grid when the stations produce excess energy.

However, the lack of a micro-generation plan for industry from the Government and the lack of incentives from the Commission for Energy Regulation are impeding the business case for this.

In the meantime, engineers from O2 say the plan is to focus on making base stations that were diesel-powered because of the absence of ESB supply self-sustaining from wind and sun.

The transformation of the Co Louth base station began in December as a joint project between Telefónica O2 and Wicklow firm Renewable Energy Systems, with a plan to create a hybrid of small wind turbine and solar photovoltaic panels.

The solar panels, coupled with the high output of the wind turbine and the battery storage, guarantees that the Co Louth base station will never lose power and eradicates the need for electricity or a diesel-burning generator.

The company says the solution will be ideal in rural areas where ESB connectivity is a problem or in brand new locations. In urban areas, the company wants to be able to use micro-generated excess electricity to offset overall electricity costs.

Patrick Patton, principal capacity planning engineer at Telefónica O2 Ireland, says that while many of O2’s base station are ‘grid-tied’ there is an ambition amongst the company’s engineers to have more self-sustaining base stations.

“While we need greater clarity on the business case for the micro-generation of electricity by industry in Ireland, we believe it will be possible to generate green energy and at times when we have excess energy to export it back to the grid or to other base stations to offset costs.”

He says that there are three types of base stations on O2’s network: greenfield sites in rural areas; suburban sites; and dense urban sites.

Patton’s colleague Bernard Colgan, principal radio frequency engineer at Telefónica O2, explains that one of the challenges facing self-sustaining base stations is the storage of excess energy and finding ways of transferring that back into the company.

“Because the base stations are self-sustaining and operate 24×7, they have a continuous load,” Colgan explains.

“But from the data we’ve gleaned over the past nine months, over 44 tonnes of CO2 emissions have been removed because we no longer need a diesel-burning generator. Based on a European comparison study, most people would generate nine tonnes of CO2 per annum. From a management perspective, we only need to maintain the base station once a year, instead of having to have refuelling trips for the diesel generator.”

Colgan says that 15 high sites have been identified as possible locations to make self-sustainable, but points out that the lack of clear and coherent guidelines for micro-generation by industry needs to be tackled.

“To be able to put a wind turbine at a base station you need planning permission and small scale turbines cannot be more than 20 metres in height. In our case, it was 17 metres. But in planning regulations it is not detailed whether telecoms companies can do this. We were also charged with redevelopment fees of over €5,000 by the County Council.

“There is a great opportunity for Ireland Inc if industry and businesses are allowed to engage in the micro-generation of electricity in the same way that landowners are currently encouraged to do this. The capital costs of solar panels and equipment are also expected to fall, so it would be a good time to clarify the issue,” Colgan adds.

Since 2007, O2 has been sourcing its electricity supply from green energy firm Energia, resulting in a 24,000 tonne-a-year reduction in CO2 emissions. The Co Louth sustainable energy mast technology was also demonstrated at the influential 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year.

“It is our belief that if we were to put in 100 small scale wind turbines at base stations around Ireland we could reduce carbon emissions by up to 1,032 tonnes a year,” explains Patton.

“But clearer guidelines on micro-generation by industry would enable us to invest in advance.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: View of the self-sustaining Telefónica O2 mobile mast in Knockaleva, Co Louth, which has already removed 44 tonnes of CO2 emissions in less than one year

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years