Harnessing Off-Grid Power from Mobile Networks

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Dec 10, 2010.

Mobile Tower

Nearly 1.6 billion people in the world live without access to electricity. This is a quarter of all humanity. At the same time, off-grid power stations from mobile towers often produce excess energy.

A new initiative from the GSMA Development Fund in partnership with Lighting Africa, International Finance Corporation and World Bank, seeks to combine this lack of electricity with excess power from mobile stations. The resulting project is called the Community Power from Mobile (CPM) initiative.

The initiative will support and encourage mobile network operators and tower-sharing companies in developing countries to provide excess power generated by their base stations to local, off-grid communities. This power can then be used for anything from charging handsets and lanterns to powering local schools and clinics. Case studies already exist and the CPM initiative is setting out to test a business model for future deployments, said David Taverner, director for theGreen Power for Mobile (GPM) program at the development fund.

MobileActive.org spoke with Taverner to learn more about the goals of the initiative.

The Background for the Idea

The GSMA Development Fund has been running the Green Power for Mobile program since 2008 to aid the mobile industry to deploy solar, wind, or sustainable biofuels technologies to new and existing off-grid base stations in developing countries.

In mid-2009, it became clear that there were geographical overlaps between the off-grid base stations which have significant power sources — diesel or renewable — and the communities around them, Taverner said. “Realization number two was that these base stations typically have a lot of excess power,” he said. So, the group researched the concept of community power from mobile, published a white paper, and is set to deploy several pilots in Africa and India in 2011 to test the concept and develop sound business models for the industry.

The idea itself is not new: Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile operator in terms of number of subscribers, has provided infrastructure for various community applications at more than 20 of its off-grid sites. The excess power at the 20 sites is going toward things such as charging handsets, powering local clinics, schools, and businesses, and providing street lighting.

The objective of the CPM initiative is to test the concept, and, most importantly, test the business model “so that we can prove that all players within the project can make profitable returns and therefore it can become self-sustaining and self-enlarging,” Taverner said.

The group is currently in conversation with a number of operators in East Africa and the major tower companies which own the mobile towers in India. CPM is an 18-month project with pilots in East Africa and India. But “our vision is not to run a series of pilots,” Taverner said. “Our vision is that the concept scales across the industry and is deployed at hundreds, if not thousands, of sites.”

What is the Benefit to the User? And How Does it Work?

Taverner explains that many people in Africa typically pay on average $.25 each time they charge their mobile phone. There are structures in place that fulfill charging needs and there are charging micro-enterprises galore. Users pay local shops with charging stations or bus drivers, or head into the next town to access a charging station. Taverner estimates that the average customer will spend $3 per month on charging alone.

With the community power initiative, there would remain a fee to charge, but it would be closer to five or ten cents per charge.

There are multiple ways community power can be implemented depending on ownership of power and equipment type. According to the paper, the scenario with the highest potential in terms of business case and social impact is the third-party-owned green power model that provides power to both the telecom infrastructure and the local community. An example of such a third party company is Barefoot Power.

The company would rent space to run an “airtime shop” at the tower. There is a very simple wire that connects the power system — the generator or the renewable energy system — to the shop. This powers large batteries which are then used to charge handsets, lanterns, or batteries that the customer can take home.

In this scenario, the operator or mobile phone company does not need to do anything; all they are doing is providing a key to their site and selling a little bit of power to the person running the shop, Taverner said.

Sounds Simple, Right? There are a few Barriers.

The process itself may sound simple, but there are components and challenges inherent in developing a sustainable model for community power from mobile.  There are three key barriers:

  1. Lack of visibility. The industry itself does not have a high awareness of the opportunities, Taverner said. Some operators have already gone this route (Safaricom, Orange, Zain, China Mobile, and Grameenphone in Bangladesh) but the rest of the industry has not.
  2. Revenue stream for the mobile provider. “It is not clear at present if there is enough revenue available to all the players in the pilot for it to be self-sustaining,” Taverner said.  He notes three main revenue areas for the operators that will be explored as part of the initiative: the sale of excess power itself, the provision of rent to the “airtime shops” at the tower, and the increase in airtime spent on local customers because their phones are charged.
  3. Partners are key. At present, there are not that many vendors or partners that are available to take this to scale, Taverner said.

MobileActive.org will post updates as the initiative progresses. Stay tuned!

Photo courtesy of kiwanja.net.

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