Like all mobile operators, Idea Cellular has been running diesel generators for over 10 hours a day to provide uninterrupted power to its telecom towers in rural areas. Meanwhile, hydrogen generated from Grasim Industries’ chlor-alkali business was being burnt as a waste by-product. Now, the AV Birla Group companies have found a way to solve each other’s problems.
Some 30 telecom towers in Madhya Pradesh are now using a fuel cell system, where hydrogen from the nearby Grasim plant produces electricity. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity. It’s a clean technology, since heat and water are the only by-products. “Until now, there was no use for this hydrogen and it was being flared up. Now we are bottling it and using it to power cell sites,” says Anil Tandan, chief technology officer, Idea Cellular.
Being a new concept in India, the group used Canada’s Dantherm Power’s help, and Delta Power, a power management company, will monitor cell sites and power usage from an operations centre in Gurgaon. Each system generates up to 2 Kilowatt of power, enough for only one operator, and can’t be deployed at towers shared by multiple operators. Idea and Grasim are evaluating taking the technology to towers in Jharkhand where the group has a plant, says Tandan.
While technical viability of hydrogen fuel cells is well known, there are many challenges in its implementation. The high cost of fuel cells, production of hydrogen at a competitive price, its storage and transportation need to be considered, feels Amit Kumar, director, energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute. “Scalability will be a constraint. There are only few locations where hydrogen is generated close to cellular sites,” he points out.
Idea is aware of the hurdles, but it has two very good reasons for executing the project. First, it’s mandated by the regulator. A recent directive by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India requires half of all rural base stations and about a third of all urban towers be powered by hybrid solutions, in the next five years. More importantly, a telecom tower consumes about 3,000 litres of diesel a year — at current prices, that’s ₹1.35 lakh a year for a tower, and Idea owns 9,000 cell sites across India. So, any saving will be welcome. But cost benefits will kick in only later. Currently, Tandan says, the fuel cells are proving costlier than diesel. “Once economies of scale build up, costs should go down,” he says optimistically.