There are a number of companies working on producing low CAPEX and OPEX base stations. Africa’s Orun Energy has chosen to focus on power and cooling and makes some bold claims in terms of cost savings. It has just completed indoor and outdoor tests with an Indian operator. Russell Southwood talks to its founder Kwabena Smith.
Smith started the company because he thought that mobile operators in emerging markets would be challenged by the issue of operational costs as ARPUs declined as they had in other large emerging markets like India.
“We felt that one of the ways that they could cut costs was to get away as much as possible from diesel use. Trying to deliver base stations in remote areas likely required those base stations to be powered by diesel because the grid doesn’t exist in those markets.”
Orun has bought together a consortium of eight companies and through an extensive process of testing (including in Ghana) has fine-tuned the manufacturing of different parts of the hybrid solutions to get optimum performance.
It has bought together alternative power sources and allowed rapid charging to the batteries to take up the energy generated. In broad terms, with an outdoor base station it looks to get 22 hours from the alternative energy source and two hours on the diesel generator.
On the indoor sites, there’s also a cooling requirement that the company has focused on. Anything between 58-63% of the power requirement on an indoor site comes from cooling:”We’ve managed to crack that and provide extremely efficient low-cost solutions for both outdoor and indoor sites.”
For indoor sites, Orun claims a 86% energy saving and for outdoor sites a 92% saving. For partial grid availability sites (4-6 hours), it claims that it can get the base station to run with zero diesel consumption. It also has a remote monitoring capability:
“We don’t believe you can operate a cell site efficiently without knowing what’s going on. It monitors 16 parameters on a minute by minute basis.”
Obviously the lower the diesel, the fewer deliveries and the less potential for theft: in some circumstances it might well be possible to move to a single delivery a year.
For the last 8 months, it has been running tests in India: two tests with four separate clients. The main one of these is with Bharti in Rajasthan, an extremely mountainous part of India with many remote sites.
“We asked for a challenging environment for testing. We did an outdoor test and a three operator indoor test. Because there’s some grid availability on the outdoor site, we’ve saved an average of 94% in energy costs. There’s been no downtime at the site.”
Why did they go to India when there’s so much demand on their own doorstep in Africa?:
“We found that African telcos were not too willing to go on the innovation path with energy efficiency. For many years, they weren’t being pushed so hard by costs so they didn’t require that level of savings. Now they do so they are listening.”
“India has the lowest costs in the world and is very competitive. It’s also much more familiar with home-grown technology so they were likely to respond to us when we came knocking and they did.”
Since the tests, Orun is now in commercial negotiations with major operators, both India and Africa. They are also talking to an Australian operator where they will do an on-grid test in order to save the operator the energy costs of powering from the grid:
“The movement to LTE means there’s more power draw coming on to the site. Because peak hour electricity costs (typically from 2pm to 10 pm at night) are high we move them to our systems during the day and charge the batteries during the off-peak period. It gives them the chance to save about 30-35% on grid power not used.”
Smith also believes that the upgrade to LTE may increase the base station power requirement by as much as 20%. But on the supply side, battery technology innovation is moving very slowly.
So Smith thinks that even with this type of innovation the best it might be able to offer is 95% cost savings, an improvement over the current quite impressive claimed levels but only incremental:”We’re probably at the cusp of whatever cost savings we can garner.”
In order to encourage operators to make the step into buying their solutions, it has set up a financing arm called Orun Capital that can finance over a period as long as 8 years.