We need to ‘clean up’ our communication technology

Talking on the cellphone is more polluting than you would imagine.

Talking on mobile phones actually pollutes the environment more than we know.

The Indian telecom sector has witnessed an exponential growth over the past decade. On last count, the number of mobile subscribers in India was almost 951 million and growing. The mobile subscriber base is expected to hit the one billion mark by 2013-14.

The growth story of the telecom sector is of much significance to India. According to a study conducted by ICRIER, there is a relationship between the GDP of a state and its telecom penetration. The telecom industry is today recognized as crucial for the socio-economic development of the nation. The rate of expansion of the sector will play an important role in enhancing the state of energy access in India.

To be precise, approximately 4, 00,000 towers in India need uninterrupted energy supply. Most of these towers are located in areas not covered by the main electricity grid. Due to the unavailability of direct electricity access in these regions, the towers are dependent on diesel generators to remain functional. This is a major concern, as the diesel is consistently becoming expensive, besides being harmful to the environment.

With one lakh towers needed to support the additional requirement for rolling out 3G services, this growth in infrastructure and the number of subscribers is not stopping anytime soon. This means more emission and more increase in operational expenses for the industry.

Idea cellular is a good example with more than half of its subscribers in rural areas. Their annual financial result reveals that their network operating costs grew three times faster than their revenues between the years 2007 and 2011. Their operating costs as a percentage of revenue more than doubled in the span of four years from 12% to almost 30%.

A closer look at the financial statements shows that the major contributors to network operating costs are rent, power and fuel charges. There is a strong correlation between increasing energy and operating costs.

The price of diesel is only going to increase in future whereas the cost of renewable energy will come down eventually. In the present scenario, energy efficiency is central to reducing environmental impact along with making communications more affordable by cutting down on the network cost. Mobile towers need to be up and running 24X7 and thus it makes for a stronger case for the industry to push for sustainable and clean renewable energy. As a matter of fact, the current increase in diesel price of has already been impacting the telecom industry’s operational cost. With such incremental operational costs based on diesel, the telecom industry’s switch to alternative energy sources is not matter of choice any more but an urgency!

 Shifting to alternative sources of energy like wind, solar and biomass makes a lot of sense for the future profitability of the entire sector. It will also address the issue of non availability of electricity while expanding in off grid areas. This apart from making business sense will also reduce the carbon footprint to a great extent.

Energy has been a major component of the operating expenditure of the telecom operators. With the recent hike in the diesel price; it will further hit their profitability. The implementation of the green telecom directive will result in a saving of INR 80, 000 crore over a period of 8 years for the telecom sector. Investment in renewable energy technology as per the report could have a return of investment of INR 13,000 crores by 2020.

Investing in renewables makes sense for the industry considering that the cost of producing a unit of electricity from diesel theoretically is in the order of INR 22-27 often exceeding the INR 30 mark.

These alternative energy sources are finding acceptance but at a very slow pace. Green telecommunications is the national responsibility of the sector and the telecom operators should take leadership in its implementation.  As per a roadmap suggested by Greenpeace in its report “Enabling Clean Talking”, there is a strong long term incentive for the Indian telecommunication sector to replace expensive and polluting diesel.

The prevailing situation suggests that a switch to renewable energy sources and an investment in green technologies will surely add to economic robustness and aid long-term profitability for the telecom Industry. Renewable energy technologies have already overtaken conventional sources of energy not just because they are sustainable and carbon emission-free but also because they are economical. Wind and biomass having already reached grid parity in India and solar energy has breached the INR 8 mark in the last reverse bidding auction.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission phase 2, the flagship programme of Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s promotes Solar energy. The program has an ambitious target to generate 20,000 MW by 2020. The stage is all set for the renewable sources of energy to overtake their conventional counterparts in terms of capacity addition. Under such scenario, solar will achieve retail grid parity in India by 2014/15 and wholesale grid parity by 2018/19.

However, looking at the current scenario the industry has been showing a general reluctance to shift and voluntarism is not working for the Govt. In view of this, Government must mandate implementation of a Greener Telecommunication and for all the talk which industry does regarding green economy or green businesses.

There is definitely a strong business case for this shift and it is high time that the government and the industry collectively take strong steps to help the country talk clean.

Mrinmoy Chattaraj is an environmental researcher and campaigner at Greenpeace. more


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Mrinmoy Chattaraj is an environmental researcher and campaigner at Greenpeace. more

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