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Cutting Back

How Heliocentris helps Telecoms operators save on their energy bills

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Energy, Energy bills, Heliocentris, ANALYSIS

Telecoms networks are developing at a far greater pace than power grids. Michael Kutchenreuter, general manager of Heliocentris, believes his company can help operators save on their energy bills.

Look closely at some of the palm trees dotted around Dubai and you might notice something curious. They are very tall, very straight and have an aerial protruding from the top of them. That’s because they are actually telecoms installations, known as base stations, disguised to look like palm trees in order to blend in to their surroundings.

Telecoms operators Du and Etisalat have installed hundreds of these base stations all over the UAE in order to provide their customers with nationwide mobile phone coverage. Due to a rapid roll out, many of them were installed in off grid locations and are equipped with diesel generators running at peak power 24 hours per day.

Germany-based Heliocentris has developed a solution that improves the energy efficiency of the base stations and allows operators to cut back on costs and save more than 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year at each station.

The company established a Dubai office three years ago to act as a hub for its expansion into the fast developing nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Pacific. Michael Kutchenreuter, general manager, explains that countries in these regions offer a tremendous opportunity because power grids have not kept pace with the development of telecoms networks.

“Operators today have the dilemma that they must invest in the radio technology – we have 4G and now comes 5G – and they have to invest in that technology in order to get revenue from the users,” he says.

“At the same time they have high operational costs and part of that, maybe even the biggest part, are energy costs. Now they’re looking for a solution to reduce operational costs in order to have enough capex to invest in their core business areas.”

Heliocentris is focused on hybrid solutions and on fuel cell technology. The core is an energy management system which runs the generator at an optimal level of efficiency while at the same time charging batteries. Once the batteries are fully charged the generator is switched off completely and the battery provides power for the base station.

This allows the operator to cut down on the running hours of the generator from 24 hours per day to less than eight hours and save more than 50% of the fuel.

“It’s not only that we can save on 50% of fuel costs, but by cutting down the running time of the generators from 24 hours to eight hours you can extend the lifetime of the generator by more than 50% and you can tremendously reduce the maintenance costs for the operators,” Kutchenreuter says. “That is maybe one of the core messages.
Protect your investment, extend the lifetime of your investment and at the same time reduce operational costs.”

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The technology
Heliocentris developed the software that drives the energy management system. It can be used in conjunction with different sources of energy, from a diesel generator to renewable sources like wind, solar or fuel cells. In addition, Heliocentris provides ‘smart operations’ to allow effective control.

“Controlling means that you have an overview of the whole solution at all times which allows you to carry out preventative maintenance to avoid outages,” Kutchenreuter says.

“Our system provides a lot of information which shows you in real time exactly where you stand with your batteries, for example, so that we can monitor their ‘health’ or the status of charge.

“We know exactly if cells are going down so we can prevent that by repairing these cells or generators before they crashe. We can increase the uptime of these sites to close to 100% fully operated and that is one of the most important issues for the operators, because they don’t have to come and fix it which adds to the cost.”

In the UAE
Kutchenreuter says hydrogen fuel cells are at the heart of the future of the business and could do away with diesel generators altogether.

In the UAE, Etisalat and Du have 2,000 base stations each and at least 400-500 are not connected to the grid. In addition to the network operators, the security authorities have their own mobile networks which have the same issues.

“One of our core partners in the region is the mobile operator Du for who we have installed systems at close to 400 off grid sites. And, of these, 250 sites are 100% running on hybrid solutions,” he says. “We started the roll out with Du three years ago and since then we’ve saved them approximately four million litres of diesel just by implementing our solutions at these sites.

“You also have to buy the land to install the base stations and generators can take up a lot of space. That’s where we step in again and provide them with our deep cycle batteries which, combined with our energy management system, can reduce the size of the generator. We optimise the use of the generator so instead of a 60kVA generator it might be that you just need a 20kVA generator.”

Outside of the Middle East, Africa and Asia offer big opportunities for Heliocentris because of the lack of grid coverage. In Myanmar, for example, there are plans to rapidly develop the mobile network but very limited grid coverage.

Heliocentris has won a contract there to equip 1000 sites. In a very short period of time the company has rolled out more than 100 sites which are now equipped with its technology and the generators are running on an optimised level of fuel efficiency and CO2 output.

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Solar solution?
Telenor in Pakistan has floated a tender for 5,000 sites which they want to equip with solar power. “Our energy management and remote monitoring solutions are completely agnostic so we can adapt it to each and every supplier of solar panels, power components and generators and that is one of the reasons why we are focused on clean energy,” says Kutchenreuter.

“Recently we installed one trial site in Kuwait which is based on completely clean power applications. It combines wind, solar and hydrogen fuel cells at the same time and that is what we believe will be the future.

“Whether or not solar becomes the preferred solution will depend on the evolution of solar technology and how cheaply manufacturers can produce their panels. Operators want to see a return on their investment within three years. Until recently you couldn’t do that with solar panels because of the cost.

“But now you can and that makes it more interesting and I believe that if the costs continue to fall then within 10 to 15 years we could see solar become the power source of choice. We see it in Germany already where private households are obliged to provide part of their power through solar panels.

“Du have some very remote base stations that are difficult to reach, even to provide fuel, so we proposed them to use solar applications. You can put the solar panels on the roof of the container. Using our solutions we can manage it remotely and there’s no need to send someone out.”

Wider application?
Could the technology have a wider application than just the telecoms industry? Kutchenreuter says it could be adapted to the needs of the oil and gas industry. For example, lengthy pipelines have transmission stations at regular intervals to maintain the pressure in the pipeline. These also require power and are often not connected to the grid.

Private housing is another area the company is looking at. “Even if it is connected to the grid you can provide independent power to private housing so that they do not depend any more on the grid but produce their own power using solar, wind and fuel cells,” Kutchenreuter says. “You could then supply that clean energy to the grid.”

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