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GSMA pushes for renewable energy for mobile networks

The Global System for Mobile communications Association has launched the Green Power for Mobile program.

The GSMA's goal is to help the mobile industry use renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or sustainable bio-fuels to power 118,000 new and existing off-grid base stations in developing countries by 2012. Achieving that target would save up to 2.5 billion liters of diesel per year and cut annual carbon emissions by up to 6.3 million tons.

"Mobile can be used for the economic development of the poorest parts of the world," said Dawn Haig-Thomas, London-based director of the GSMA Development Fund. "The reason for our involvement in the program is to tackle the barriers preventing people who want use a mobile phone from doing so.

"If we want our industry to grow, we have to get power into remote parts of the world," she said.

The GSMA estimates that 3.3 billion currently use mobile phones and that the great majority of people who don't live off the electricity grid.

"We target the developing world," Ms. Haig-Thomas said. "Participating carriers come from Africa, Asia and Telefonica in Latin America, with approximately 40 different countries represented."

The GSMA, the global trade body for the mobile phone industry, forecasts that by 2012 up to 50 percent of new off-grid base stations in the developing world could be powered by renewable energy.

Backed by 25 carriers, the Green Power for Mobile program will provide expertise to support the deployment of base stations that use renewable energy.

Up to now, off-grid base stations have primarily been powered by generators running on diesel fuel, which is increasingly expensive, generates carbon dioxide emissions and can be difficult to transport to remote locations.

Following extensive research with carriers, the GSMA Development Fund estimates that only 1,500 base stations worldwide are powered by at least one form of renewable energy.

Challenges to date have included commercial viability, equipment availability and lack of expertise.

However, the GSMA's research suggests that rising diesel prices and falling renewable equipment costs mean that operators investing in green power sources for base stations could recoup the capital costs in as little as 24 months.

"A challenge for carriers is financing, and they can either install a diesel generator to power a base station, which has high operating costs, versus putting a wind turbine in place, which requires very little maintenance," Ms. Haig-Thomas said. "To justify the high-capsule up-front expenditure to shareholders, carriers should stress that after installation operating costs for renewable energy are zero."

The GSMA Development Fund is already working with several mobile operators to develop renewable power solutions for a variety of base stations located in diverse geographies.

The Development Fund has supported Digicel's deployment of wind and solar energy to power 17 new base stations on the Pacific island of Vanuatu.

After a successful pilot in conjunction with the GSMA Development Fund and Ericsson, Idea Cellular now uses waste cooking oil to help power more than 350 base stations in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, where the conventional electricity supply can be erratic.

The base stations run on a blend made up of 80 percent diesel fuel and 20 percent waste cooking oil.

The major suppliers of base stations have anticipated the growing demand for green networks and have introduced a variety of low-energy products as well as renewable energy power solutions.

New entrants are also emerging, providing tailored bolt-on power solutions for base stations.

The GSMA is developing metrics for "green" base stations to support carriers in their decision-making on providers and products.

"Renewable energy is in hot demand globally, and the waiting lists are quite long for things like solar panels, but we believe that will be changing in six to 12 months," Ms. Haig-Thomas said. "Supply will catch up with demand."

The carriers involved in the Green Power for Mobile program met in Kenya. They were hosted by Safaricom, a leader in the use of renewable energy for networks with 30 base stations powered by solar and wind energy.

As well as supporting carriers with experts in the field, the GSMA Development Fund has also launched a Web site at providing information on the viability of a range of renewable energy solutions in different environments.

The GSMA is the global trade group representing more than 750 GSM carriers across 218 countries and territories worldwide.

The association's members represent more than 3 billion GSM and 3GSM connections -- more than 86 percent of the world's mobile phone connections.

In addition, more than 200 manufacturers and suppliers support the GSMA's initiatives.

The primary goals of the GSMA are to ensure mobile phones and wireless services work globally and are easily accessible, enhancing their value to individual customers and national economies, while creating new business opportunities for operators and their suppliers.

"The mobile industry is really ripe for renewable energy," Ms. Haig-Thomas said. "All you need is a small wind turbine or eight solar panels and you're up and running."

"It's a sweet spot, and the GSMA has experience in it now," she said. "We've been out there on the ground installing base stations running on wind and solar and seeing first-hand that it works."

While the current renewable energy push focuses largely on Asia, Africa and Latin America, U.S. and European carriers should take note as well.

"We haven't planned for U.S. and European carriers, but we're waiting to see what kind of demand there is," Ms. Haig-Thomas said. "I personally think this will catch on in American and European markets as well, but right now we're focusing on the developing world where the need is greatest."