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Battery storage for telecommunications networks: the use case

By Matthew Gove, founder and CEO, Hardened Network Solutions, Inc.
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This year has seen major energy storage deployment plans announced by telecommunications network operators in Finland and Germany, and substantial fundraises by ESS firms targeting the segment.

Finlands’s Elisa announced a 150MWh rollout across its network in February while Deutsche Telekom began a 300MWh deployment the same month. This year has also seen US$50 million fundraises by Caban and Polarium, both energy storage system (ESS) solution providers which have made the telecommunications segment a key focus.

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Matthew Gove from Hardened Network Solutions, another company focusing on that market, looks at the use case of distributed battery energy storage for telecommunications infrastructure networks.

Telecommunications’ inherent need for long-duration BESS

We see an inherent need for long-duration battery energy storage systems (BESS) for wireless networks, particularly at cell sites.

Over the past 30 years, or so, cell phones have gone from a luxury to a human appendage. So much so that cell phones are the number one life saving device on earth.

There are approximately 400,000 cell sites in the USA and millions of components that must simultaneously have power for a national network to function. The most vulnerable of these is the cell site.

Therefore, it is a critical public safety need for wireless networks to maximise their uptime (i.e., availability and reliability). The number one thing that can be done to improve network availability and reliability is to ensure the constant availability of sufficient electrical power. Power generation and distribution are highly centralised. If either is interrupted users are denied grid power.

Therefore, the industry needs a solution that distributes or stores continuous, reliable electricity to the site, regardless of the local grid’s condition, before any power outage event occurs. We call it pushing storage to the edge (i, e. to the customer premise where we know it is going to be needed). In the US telecommunications spend approximately $13 billion on electricity.

Networks down for days at a time

Looking at the present challenges facing the supply of electricity to cell sites, there are natural and manmade disasters and other force majeure that threaten the commercial power grid on local, regional and national levels. In the coastal regions of southeastern United States there are over 2,500 miles of coastline that is regularly subject to damaging tropical storms.

In those areas, there are about 29 million people living in the coastal counties, who are usually the most affected by these storms. In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, it took the major telecommunications companies 10 to 30+ days to restore 100% of comms. In California, with the fires, millions of people are without grid power for days at a time.

In California (population 39 million), a state already experiencing frequent power outages and brownouts, they regularly turn off the power (to millions of customers) in effort to prevent forest fires.

In Texas (population 30 million) they have had massive grid failures due to summer heat and winter storms.

These are not isolated incidents.

Weaknesses of the existing solution

The industry standard is the diesel generator. However, in most cases, carriers can only store limited amounts of diesel fuel at a site, necessitating refuelling, usually after 6-8 hours of operation. With many disasters the roads are impassable and refuelling impossible. Most disasters do not resolve themselves in under 8 hours.

Carriers must report all network outages, no matter how short in duration, to the Federal Communications Commission and, in many cases, face federal and state regulatory fines, penalties and sanctions for long-duration network outages.

Looking into the future, things don’t get better, they get worse. We are spending trillions of dollars on things that will demand more electricity and forcing conversion from internal combustion engines to electric devices (vehicles, appliances, landscaping equipment, portable generators, etc.).

This will result in a massive increase in demand for electricity from the already overstressed commercial power grid.

However, no corresponding investment is being made in the infrastructure that generates and distributes electricity. So, there will undoubtedly be a significant mismatch in supply and demand of electricity, putting all aspects of society as risk, not the least of which will be the wireless networks upon which we are so reliant for so many aspects of our lives.

The challenge for telecommunications networks, today, is daunting. The industry is highly regulated, capital intensive and very competitive. Wireless carriers have lengthy capital planning processes that commit the companies’ resources many years into the future.

The primary focus, as it should be, for capital investment is the generation of profitable revenues. Investments and expenditures related to improving availability and reliability are important but do not directly contribute to revenues.

Therefore, monies dedicated to these activities are done so with care and restraint. Solutions improving uptime must be cost effective in relation to the costs of doing nothing or the next best solution.

The new solution: long-duration BESS

The challenge is to deliver long-duration BESS in a competitive and cost-effective manner.

So, we have developed a scalable backup power system that can handle a load (5kW-15kW) for long durations that can be measured in days not hours. The specifications and configurations can be tailored to meet each customer’s disparate needs.

We expect the demand to be for systems capable of continuous operation for 24 to 72 hours (about 3 days).

Customer demands will vary significantly based on several factors. First is the aggregate electric load of the customer equipment present at the site and its peak draw and the duration the customer would like for the backup power to last. Analysing the historical power usage of the site can be helpful in estimating the resources needed to maintain operations as usual in the event of an outage.

Additional considerations include future growth needs, planned additions of replacement of equipment (with different power consumption profiles) and the desire to incorporate renewable generation. There are many locations the carriers want to service with off-grid, self-sustained cell sites.

In the future, as renewable generation paired with storage becomes more competitively priced, carriers and telecom companies will take ownership of power generation and provision. While still grid-tied, they will eliminate material electric utility expenses and protect themselves against grid failures.

Ultimately, we see a distributed grid of sorts protecting the core infrastructure of our national telecom capability. We feel strongly that in the USA, regulators will eventually force telecom carriers to increase backup power resources to ensure their networks ‘never’ go dark. California is leading this charge, many will follow. That said, regulators are cognisant of the expense this investment would require and that the technology is not quite “There” to make it either possible or reasonable.

Used EV batteries

Why second life? The challenge is to build backup power systems that outperform what is available today and can compete on price. We will continuously develop new products for legitimate market opportunities. The environmental benefits will be a continuous positive ‘emission’ of our successful, ongoing, commercial enterprise.

Usually during the initial stages of modern technology development and adaptation, costs are high and adoption slow. This has almost always been the case in modern history with examples like automobiles, telephones, televisions, computers and cell phones.

Similarly, capital intensive services, when first introduced, are for the affluent like train, air and space travel until they are so widely adopted they become affordable to the masses. Energy storage media are the core component and expensive. Telecom carriers are very price sensitive.

So, why not use second life EVBs to help drive the cost down faster than the normal economic cycles?

When a used EVB, suitable for reuse, ends its automotive life it will have 70-80% of its original, nominal storage capacity.

In the stationary storage application we envision, the load they will be handling will consist of radios, antennae system and environmentals (heating and cooling). The BESS systems do not need to handle high voltages or demanding loads such as getting a 4,000lbs (about 1814.37 kg) object from standing still to highway speeds, as they would have done in their previous ‘lifetimes’.

For now, we see the opportunity in specific commercial applications. That said, I firmly believe that there will be battery storage everywhere (industrial, commercial, public spaces, etc.) including at homes. With widespread commercial adoption of BESS, over the coming years, the costs of such systems will come down and be affordable to a much wider market. It is not difficult to imagine some storage capacity deployed in conjunction with every electric meter on the grid.

If we assume the premise that demand for electricity will far outstrip supply in the future, who will be the beneficiaries of a solution? The providers of affordable solutions that protect businesses and customers from commercial grid power failures.

About the author

Matthew Gove is the CEO and founder of Hardened Network Solutions, Inc. (“HNSI”), which he founded specifically to address the vulnerabilities of wireless telecommunications networks, upon which modern society is so reliant, and in light of the coming tidal wave of used electric vehicle batteries. Previously, he served as an investment banker and consultant providing strategic guidance, and corporate finance expertise to companies around the world.

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