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​Making solar power economically viable – for our children

The Pure Solar Myanmar project received the Green Mobile Award from the GSMA at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 28, 2017.

When I was 11 years old, my dad got me a computer. It cost $300 and had 2kByte of RAM. I saved money and bought a book about programming. That was 32 years ago and it changed my life. It gave me a ticket to the world, and to the future. Sadly, my dad passed away much too early, but his gift still serves me to this day. It inspired me to play an active role in the mobile broadband revolution – a revolution that’s put devices in our pockets that we can use to contact anyone anywhere, to learn and to share.

Most parents in Sweden back in the 1980s could have bought their children computers too, but they didn’t. Our generation has a similar choice: What will we leave for our children? A few weeks ago I came across a troubling image: a timeline of earth’s average temperature since the last ice age created using data from the IPCC. While our generation has created one of the greatest revolutions ever, we’ve also caused the biggest issue – climate change. What are we going to do about it? I, for one, want to be able to look my kids in the eyes when they get older and tell them I did my part.​

Myanmar
When I arrived in Myanmar in 2013 it was a closed country with many people living in poor conditions. But it was pristine – Yangon was a lush, green city where the people were calm and relaxed. There were just a few cars, no motorcycles and no traffic jams. I often went jogging in the mornings and enjoyed the fresh, clean air.

Now, in 2016, the future has come to Myanmar. People are connected, they have more education, better jobs and greater freedom. President Obama lifted US sanctions against the country just a few weeks ago. However, with the economic boost, pollution has followed. Just three years since the day I arrived here, the roads are jammed with cars that fill the air with thick, black fumes. Since the electricity grid is either poor or non-existent, the sale of large, industrial-grade diesel generators is booming. Jogging in the capital now leaves a layer of black dust on my skin.

The big idea
While solar powered solutions for telecom sites have existed for decades, the 5-10 year payback time has been considered too long. In cash-strapped, fast rollout situations with ROI pressure, operators usually find that hard to swallow. As a result, off-grid telecom sites are almost always diesel powered.

But one of the great things about Myanmar is that there is no legacy. So when we started building the telecommunications network out into more rural areas, my colleagues and I asked ourselves: What if we could create a base station site that would be CHEAPER to run on solar power than on diesel?

Because that’s the only way solar powered solutions will be built in large quantities – if we can make them cheaper than the alternatives. The lower cost will make it possible to connect more people in rural areas, and do so sustainably. Since telecommunication as a whole effectively lowers carbon emissions through mobility, there is a substantial opportunity to lower the CO2 footprint.

A 500-watt site innovation
The total power consumption of the entire base station site we created – including microwave transmission, cabinet fans, controllers, everything – is in range of 500 watts. A clothing iron at home is usually 1000 watts; a standard 2G/3G site is 2000 watts. That means that our solar concept reduces power consumption by a factor of 4 – it uses only 25% as much power as a standard site, requiring only a quarter as many solar panels and batteries for the solar case.

To make our concept work, we needed a technology that radically changed the economics. Ericsson has a unique solution called PSI that delivers no-compromise 3G or 4G coverage at significantly lowered power consumption. The trade-off is lower capacity but in rural areas, moderate capacity is sufficient, so there is basically no difference in service. We decided to skip 2G. Since the future is mobile broadband, we went with 3G from the start.

PSI coverage, together with low-power microwave equipment and slim dimensioning of the power system, completed the equation for a sustainable and efficient way to bring broadband connectivity to resource-poor areas. We were proud to be the first in the world to showcase this solution on 42 Mbps Dual Carrier HSDPA in Myanmar in 2015.

So how did it go?
The resulting site has been up and running for three months – during Myanmar’s rainy season – with 100% availability. Maybe in a couple of years it could go down one night during a long stretch of rainy days, but I think that’s OK. In rural villages with no roads, no electricity, and a water and sewer system that is basic or absent, people go to sleep when it gets dark. I think having connectivity 99.7% of the time is acceptable in cases like this, where the usual Ericsson gold-plated 99.9999% is not expected. 99.7% is a lot better than 0.

And the economics?
Our energy neutral, solar powered site is more affordable than the standard diesel generator (DG) powered site already at year 1! After 3-5 years, it will cost half of what a standard DG site would, in terms of both CAPEX and OPEX. The outcome of this project exceeded our wildest hopes and it gives me great pride. Everyone told us it was impossible, but we did it anyway. The next step is to build many more solar-powered sites around the world.

In the future I can look my children in the eyes and tell them I did my part!

 

Together with mobile operator Telenor, Ericsson successfully deploying the world’s first 500 Watt solar-powered site in Myanmar, making solar more economical than diesel for the first time. In a country where 70% of the population lacks access to electricity, rural off-grid sites typically use a diesel generator and battery solution, leading to significant costs and CO2 emissions. Our innovations resulted in a 75% reduction in total site power consumption while retaining full coverage, service quality and performance. Explore more of our initiatives in the 2016 Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility report.

Written by Anders Larsson

Anders has spent nearly two decades working within the mobile broadband revolution in ten different countries. He progressed from GPRS to LTE product management, and on to vice president for Mobile Broadband and Communications Services for Southeast Asia & Oceania. He is currently CTO for Ericsson Myanmar. Anders holds his own patents in radio, core and service layer areas. His passion is to create lasting positive impacts on the world.