The race to sustainability for 5G infrastructure

On the leafy outskirts of the little Hampshire town of Bordon, just before the roads and houses give way to the dense and biologically rich woodland of Woolmer Forest, there is a cluster of unusual buildings – hybrids of older brickwork and modern glass and steel. Here, among the many firms operating out of the EM3 Enterprise Zone, sits the BASE Bordon Innovation Centre. A combination of office space and meeting facilities geared towards start-ups and SMEs, it is designed to offer a work environment compatible with any and all business needs. Part of this package includes a brand new 5G network, developed by one of the Innovation Centre’s own tenants, powerQuad. While it is far from unusual for offices spaces to have such services available, management and staff at BASE Bordon and at powerQuad are keen to discuss what sets their network apart from many others.

“The crucial difference here at BASE compared to other 5G hubs is this will be powered using the latest in battery storage technology from powerQuad to give energy security and integrity to the future 5G digital industry,” Duncan Gill, the centre manager at BASE Bordon, explains. “This ensures power is available for very long periods in power cuts and tracks local energy supplies to power the 5G hub with the lowest carbon and cheapest energy available.  This really does show how to build back better for a cleaner, greener world.”

Gil Satchell from powerQuad agrees, adding “Our unique technology stores and releases energy allowing reductions in carbon footprint and electricity bills by around 40 per cent. If this technology was scaled up across other workplaces, labs, and offices then this adds up to big reductions.”

It is an interesting solution to a question that has been troubling businesses for a while now: how are they to confront the issue of 5G’s carbon footprint in an era when the realities of climate change are already of a pressing concern?

Progressive applications of digital technology

Liang Hua, chairman of the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, believes that solutions to digital tech sustainability can be offered by the technology itself. “We believe that a digital economy should, first and foremost, be a green economy,” he explained in a blog post marking the release of the company’s 2020 sustainability report. “The ICT industry has been working to use less energy to transmit, process, and store more information. Take 5G as an example. Its energy consumption per bit is only one-tenth of 4G’s, but it can provide 30 times the capacity.”

There is also the consideration, as presented in a report compiled by TMT management consultancy Analysys Mason titled Green 5G: Building a Sustainable World, that 5G is already proving to be an enabler of sustainability improvements across international markets.

“The 5G enabling effect arises from changes to processes and behaviour, which are supported by a high-capacity, ubiquitous and low-latency 5G network,” the report notes. “Together with virtualisation, edge computing, AI enabled analytics and cloud, 5G can help industries to implement new processes as an integral part of an energy efficiency programme, by supporting the most efficient and flexible allocation of resources.”

Noteworthy examples of the kind of positive changes that 5G enables can be seen in projects across China utilising the technology. The Green 5G report outlines a number of these, including 5G-enabled remote computed tomography (CT) consultation in less affluent areas of the country that eliminate the need for medical staff to travel to remote areas; the use of 5G drones to inspect inaccessible gas pipelines, and installing 5G cameras in manufacturing plants to allow for rapid plant inspections across the country without travelling requirements.

All these changes led to reductions of GHG emissions, in some areas by as much as 99 per cent. If similar changes were brought in internationally, the net reduction of carbon emissions could prove to be massive.

Physical solutions to physical problems

None of this means that the reality of 5G carbon emissions should be ignored. Innovation on existing technologies represent a positive approach to carbon footprints, but the cost of assuming an endpoint to this process before true net-zero could be catastrophic.

In an intriguing joint venture to bring down CO2 emissions, Finish telecoms firm Nokia and Japanese firm KDDI are trialling a new liquid cooling system on their baseband technologies that they believe can reduce energy consumption by as much as 70 per cent. They are also looking into the possibility of a heat reuse system that could bring CO2 reductions to 80 per cent overall.

“This trial is another milestone in Nokia’s commitment to sustainability and combatting climate change,” John Lancaster-Lennox, head of market unit Japan at Nokia, says. He recognises the imperative of continually pushing at the boundaries of what is achievable. “Nokia was the first vendor to introduce this game-changing liquid cooling solution which supports operators in their quest to be more environmentally responsible,” he adds.

Looking to a stable green future

At the BASE Bordon Innovation Centre, Duncan Gill is keen to recognise the importance of long-term thinking as well as immediate improvements. “The 5G low carbon initiative is part of a wider pilot project funded by the Enterprise M3 LEP to provide sustainable battery storage technology throughout the BASE Bordon workspace,” he explains. “With workspaces looking at EV charging and other new low carbon technology, having the base infrastructure in place will accelerate net zero.”

It is that grounding in a sustainability mindset, backed up by green technology that is already delivering results, that should stand businesses in good stead to take on the challenges of both the present and the future.

“For the world at large, businesses will become more wireless, and will need access to 5G systems to move vast amounts of data over a short time,” Duncan concludes. “Our current system is expected to last at least ten years. As the energy industry continues to change, remote updates of software to the battery storage system ensures all future needs are met.”

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