5G, renewable energy and climate action

The climate crisis is increasing every day – and the mobile industry is taking action. The introduction of 5G networks will offer new opportunities to speed up the energy transition and reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.

On 23 January, the GSMA organised the very first ‘Renewable Energy for 5G Europe‘ conference, with the support of WindEurope, SolarPower Europe and the RE-Source Platform. The event had two goals. First, to discuss energy-related features of 5G networks and how mobile network operators can switch to renewable energy. Secondly, to bring together the two industries of mobile and renewable technologies.

The 5G networks of tomorrow will be much more energy efficient than current and previous generations of mobile networks. But 5G will also increase our ability to transform entire industries, creating vast opportunities for energy savings, and facilitating the energy transition to a decarbonised economy and society.

Breaking the curve

The mobile industry is a relatively small, but growing, contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With each introduction of a new generation of networks, the energy demand rises (also because of expansion and densification of these networks). Total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the mobile sector amount to 0.5% of global GHG emissions.

Will the energy consumption go up further with 5G? Although 5G networks are likely to drive a dramatic increase in mobile traffic, they are also designed to be more energy efficient than their predecessors. As Mats Pellbäck Scharp, Head of Sustainability at Ericsson, stated at the conference, it is important that we break the rising energy curve.

This is doable with 5G as it is 90% more energy efficient compared with 4G, but it also requires actions such as replacing inefficient network equipment and deploying energy saving functionalities. According to Leon Zhang, VP 5G Product Line at Huawei, by 2025 the GHG emissions per connection can drop with 80% – as long as 5G is operational by then. A quick roll-out of 5G could further reduce the energy demand of the mobile sector, predicted Philip Laidler from STL Partners at the conference and in this study.

5G enabling the energy transition

One important aspect of mobile technologies is that they have a multiplier effect on other industries when it comes to saving energy – the ‘enablement effect’. The GSMA recently launched a report explaining this transformative mechanism. Already in 2018, the enablement effect was over 2,000 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018. This is almost ten times greater than the total CO2 emissions of the mobile networks globally.

5G networks will further enable sustainable development, not only in terms of reaching large scale energy efficiency, but also in the energy transition itself. Jikke Op de Weegh, Lead Sustainability at KPN expressed this key feature of the new networks pointedly: ‘5G will bring the right power at the right time.’

How does this work? If renewables take up a larger slice of the electricity production, the electricity grid itself needs to be reorganised because most renewables are produced locally. 5G can facilitate that process of decentralising networks because it is incredibly fast and secure, and will be able to help balance the energy grid. Frauke Thies, Executive Director at SmartEn, predicted that by 2040 1 billion homes and 11 billion smart devices will engage and participate in energy systems. ‘This requires massive amounts of data to be securely and swiftly transferred.’

The enabling capability of 5G is noticed by legislators. Mark van Stiphout of DG Energy noted that smart energy systems will require an efficient and seamless exchange of data across borders and systems. ‘Future energy systems will have extreme flexibility and need to be more intelligent.’ If successful, whole power plants could be virtualised, for instance by using thousands of batteries of electric vehicles at night to keep a baseload of electricity available on the market. This of course would herald a revolution in the energy world, which currently evolves around centralised (and inefficient) production of electricity.

Switching to renewables

While 5G can play an important role for other sectors ‘to go green’, the mobile industry itself is committed to taking climate action. In 2019, the GSMA announced that its members would follow the Paris Agreement and reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Many European operators have even higher ambitions and aim to switch to 100% renewable energy. Companies like Telefonica and Telia are committing to this 100% target already in 2030.

At the Renewable Energy for 5G Europe conference, we invited several companies and associations to discuss the collective switching to renewables by the telecoms sector. A very popular construction, also used by hundreds of large companies across the world, is the so-called Power Purchase Agreement. These PPAs attract a lot of interest as they seem the way forward for companies to secure long-term provision of renewable energy at low cost. PPAs are also very useful for renewable energy companies as it gives them the opportunity to expand their production, by building new (solar and wind) sites – sometimes just for one specific company.

The main reason for meeting 100% of electricity demand through renewable sources is cost-saving, argued Aleksandra Klassen of the Climate Group. She introduced the RE100 initative which has 221 participating companies, committed to accelerate change towards zero carbon grids, at global scale. According to Lucy Hunt of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), there are other options then PPAs for companies to switch to renewable energy. They can also buy certificates or produce energy themselves, for instance to directly power telecom antennas with solar energy. But PPAs attract the most attention; they have experienced a massive growth in the last five years.

RE-Source toolkit

Bruce Douglas, coordinator of the RE-Source Platform, flagged that there are still barriers to the corporate sourcing of renewable energy in Europe. He recommended legislators to remove barriers, provide long-term clarity on ownership of Guarantees of Origin, encourage cross-border renewable energy transactions and enabling a wide variety of models and products. The RE-Source Platform has released a very useful toolkit for buyers as an introduction to corporate sourcing of renewable electricity in Europe. You can find the toolkit online for free.

His colleague Viktoriya Kerelska from WindEurope added that wind actually is the cheapest form of energy in Europe, outperforming gas, coal and nuclear. The European Green Deal will require large investments in renewable energy, for instance because wind energy is capital intensive with most of the cost coming from fixed sources such as the turbines themselves. Revenue stabilisation mechanisms could be used as means to prevent an increase to the cost of wind energy, again with PPAs but also competitive auctions as the prime solutions.

At this first conference on 5G and renewable energy in Brussels, the two sectors were able to learn from each other. While we will consider ways to cooperate in the near future, the next important step in the GSMA’s Climate Action programme will be announced at MWC Barcelona 2020 (24-27 February). In the meantime, you can download the Climate Action Handbook that we published last year, which is a comprehensive overview of the climate issue itself as well as a guide for anyone working in the mobile industry to adapt and respond to the climate emergency.

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