Managing the Looming 5G Energy Surge

Scott Armul, Global Vice President of DC Power at Vertiv explores the many challenges and opportunities that the transition to 5G represents for data center operators and explains the 5G energy surge. 

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Scott Armul, Global Vice President of DC Power at Vertiv.

The transition from 4G to 5G networks will be unlike anything our industry has encountered in previous network upgrades. 5G is another animal altogether, a step change that 451 Research called “the most impactful and difficult network upgrade ever faced by the telecom industry.”

This is not hyperbole. And it requires a thorough reevaluation of how we design and implement these networks.

A fully realized 5G network ultimately will enable, among other use cases, life-critical applications such as advanced telemedicine and, eventually, autonomous vehicles. But 5G networks also will be far denser than existing 3G and 4G networks in order to meet bandwidth and latency demands of these applications and their users. To make it happen, operators can’t simply replicate existing sites. 5G sites require more IT equipment and infrastructure that consumes more energy.

Look at the numbers from within the industry: Global mobile data traffic will grow almost fourfold by 2025, leading to an overall increase in network energy consumption of 150-170% by 2026 according to Vertiv’s own estimates.

As operators race to deploy their 5G networks, the goal is to reach users first. That urgency is understandable; according to IHS Markit, 5G is expected to generate $13.2 trillion in sales enablement by 2035. There is money in 5G – lots of it.

But if deploying quickly is Priority 1, managing energy consumption and reducing those costs is going to be 1A.

Here’s why: While 5G networks will develop new sites, they’ll also be using many thousands of existing locations, many of which are equipped with older, inefficient equipment.

This looming overhaul represents an opportunity; operators have the chance – more like an imperative – to make these shifts with energy efficiency in mind. Today’s equipment is more intelligent and capable of reducing costs through smarter operation – activating sleep modes to avoid operation during peak hours and storing cheaper, off-peak energy for use later, for example.

Even batteries present opportunities for efficiency improvements. The smaller footprint and better thermal performance of Lithium-ion batteries, for example, reduces the energy required for cooling (and cooling costs). There’s reason here for optimism; research suggests a majority of telcos are in the process of upgrading their batteries and 81% said they would do so within five years.

Perhaps the most significant difference between 4G and 5G is the introduction of IT equipment at each cell site. But for all its promise, including on-site data processing, that IT equipment doesn’t just drop in to traditional telco sites.

The differences can be basic but daunting: IT equipment runs on AC power, while telco networks have relied on DC power for about a century. Now you’ve got a power conversion to manage, with its attendant energy drops and heat generation. This is readily manageable at a single site, but we’re talking about thousands – in some cases hundreds of thousands – of network sites. All these seemingly modest site-level improvements add up quickly.

Consider the heat equation: IT equipment is more sensitive to heat and humidity than traditional telecom equipment, meaning environmental control is more critical than it has been in the past. Even if you recognize the wider operating range of modern servers and IT equipment – and if you don’t, that’s another easy energy-saving change you should adopt – cooling those existing traditional concrete structures consumes energy.

Alternatives exist. Smaller, modern enclosures are designed to better protect sensitive equipment from the elements and manage the heat inside.

But heat isn’t the only energy consumption challenge: This conversion is happening as telecommunications companies have pledged to reduce emissions and energy consumption as they work to address climate change. For example, Verizon and Vodafone are aiming for net zero emissions by 2040, and Telefónica has committed to net-zero in its top four operating markets by 2030. To get there, Verizon and Vodafone are targeting 50% reductions in electricity usage by 2025 and Telefónica a 70% reduction by 2030.

These are big, bold goals requiring big, bold strategies. Everything we’ve discussed to this point almost certainly will be part of these plans, but no one is reducing energy use by 50% or getting to net-zero emissions strictly through high-efficiency components and smarter approaches to cooling.

This is where renewable energy sources and hybrid power systems come into play. The United States has been slower than most countries to adopt hybrid systems as anything other than a niche solution. The reasons are well known: The cost and availability of energy in the U.S. is low, while the cost for solar panels and power – the primary renewable source for hybrid systems – has been high, preventing widespread adoption.

That is changing, at least in parts of the country. Advances in solar technologies have reduced costs on that front, bringing the cost-per-kilowatt-hour closer to grid parity and well into the range of viable alternatives. For on-grid deployments, a solar add-on is a way of reducing reliance on the grid without having to increase infrastructure costs for better batteries and the like. When available incentives are factored into the mix, solar-based hybrid power systems are a solid recommendation.

We have just scratched the surface of what will be needed to manage the increased energy needs of 5G networks, and the truth is all of these approaches and countless others will be parts of the solution. In fact, they will work best when incorporated together, with even small gains making a major difference when multiplied by scale and compounded by creating a cascade effect, with each step magnifying the impact of the one before.

The sooner we all understand the scale of the challenge, the sooner we’ll have those critical conversations about how to address those challenges.

This article was written by Scott Armul is Global Vice President of DC Power at Vertiv. Find out more about him at LinkedIn. Vertiv brings together hardware, software, analytics and ongoing services to enable continuous and optimal running of vital applications for data centers, communication networks, and commercial and industrial facilities. Its portfolio comprises of power, cooling and IT infrastructure solutions and services, extending from the cloud to the edge of the network. Learn more at Vertiv 

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