This year's Winter Storm Uri caused havoc in Texas, particularly in the energy sector, where extreme weather and a resultant set of generation problems and transmission grid issues led to loss of power and even loss of life across the US state. Ricardo F. Rodriguez, a senior consultant from analysis and research group Guidehouse looks at another aspect of the situation: the impact on the state's telecommunications infrastructure and how battery energy storage could provide a greater degree of certainty and resilience to this vital network.
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The threat of global climate instability has redefined the importance of network resilience for telecommunications (telecom) operators and end users alike. According to FCC data, Winter Storm Uri left 369,918 Texans unable to access essential communications services as wireless providers in the state struggled to recover from historically low temperatures.
A lack of communications infrastructure only made recovery harder, especially after the storm disabled several 911 call centres and limited the Texas Division of Emergency Management’s ability to use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates with Texans in high risk areas. As a result, residents and lawmakers around the state are calling for reforms aimed at improving communication networks’ resilience and recovery against extreme weather events.
Diesel gensets vs renewables-plus-battery storage
Telecom providers depend on backup power to maintain a constant power supply, to prevent power outages, and to enable the operability of cell towers, equipment, and networks. When a tower or facility loses power from the grid, a backup power source must assume site load. Most telecom facilities have at least 8-hour backup, often required by regulation, but there is increasing need for backup power between 24 and 72 hours. To meet this demand, most providers will likely deploy diesel generator sets, or gensets.
However, over-reliance on diesel generators is a speedy reaction that would ultimately worsen air-quality in a time when more than four in 10 Americans live in an area with unhealthy air and air pollution is the fourth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide.
Fortunately, advanced battery storage systems are available for telecom operators seeking alternative energy solutions. Although lead-acid batteries traditionally led this space, lithium ion (Li-ion) and flow battery chemistries are expected to account for a growing share of deployments over the coming decade.
According to Guidehouse Insights, 1.8 GW of cumulative global deployments of Li-ion and flow battery energy storage systems for telecom networks is projected between 2021-2030. Although Asia-Pacific’s rapid telecom infrastructure development is expected to drive this growth, the North American market will see an uptick in deployments as regulatory mandates requiring longer durations of backup power mount.
New backup power mandates for California telecom companies
In February 2021, California regulators announced a new mandate requiring major phone companies to provide at least 72 hours of battery backup power for their wired systems during public safety power outages. The order gives the companies 8 months to install backup power on towers serving hospitals, police, and fire stations and 1.5 years to residences and businesses. It only applies to high fire danger areas most prone to the planned outages and most likely to have unreliable cell service. The mandate is directed at protecting elderly and disabled customers who are more likely to rely on a wired phone connection.
According to reports filed by utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), nearly 580,000 customers experienced shutoffs in 2020. Of those, 5,700 customers were not notified before losing power. Of those, 203 were enrolled in the utility’s Medical Baseline program for people medically dependent on electricity. Since 2020, PG&E has partnered with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers to create the Disability Disaster Access & Resources program. The program enables local centers to provide qualifying customers who use electrical medical devices with access to backup portable batteries through a grant, lease-to-own, or the FreedomTech low interest financial loan program. Transportation resources, lodging and food, emergency planning, education, and outreach about PG&E programs such as Medical Baseline are also part of the program.
This new mandate is separate from the one issued in July 2020 that required wireless mobile towers to have 72 hours of backup power in emergency situations networkwide. That decision requires wireless carriers to provide emergency backup power for wireless facilities for a minimum of 72 hours in Tier 2 (elevated risk) and Tier 3 (extreme risk) High Fire Threat Districts. In addition, carriers are required to submit a Communications Resiliency Plan stipulating their ability to provide minimum levels of service like 911 and basic internet browsing during a power outage, a grid outage response plan, the ability to report on system outages, and plans for achieving long-term clean generation of backup power.
In response to the CPUC regulations mandating backup power for cell towers, AT&T announced that it is carrying out a statewide effort integrated with the FirstNet Project. To support its obligations to the public safety network, the company is investing US$340 million over 3 years to provide backup power of at least 72 hours to cell sites covering 99% of California’s population.
Writing is on the wall for US telecom companies
Following the widespread cellular outages that occurred as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2008, the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to mandate 24 hours of battery backup power for all mobile towers in the US failed to gain traction. Subsequent hurricanes, wildfires, and winter storms highlight the severe need for such reforms. In light of this need, Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Representative Jerry McNearny (D-CA) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced the RESILIENT Networks Act in 2020. The Act is the first federal legislative effort to substantially address the problem of how to get modern communications systems back up and running if they go down in a disaster.
The RESILIENT Networks Act requires pre-planned coordination among providers of advanced communications service to take effect during times of emergency, including roaming and mutual aid arrangements. It improves coordination between communications providers, 911 operators, and public safety entities. The legislation also includes mechanisms to ensure first responders are provided network outage data to help guide disaster response.
Support is swelling for state and local government mandates involving battery backup power for telecom sites, the RESILIENT Networks Act is scheduled for consideration later this year, and a variety of advanced battery storage technology solutions are ready to be deployed. With this activity in play, US telecom companies should begin to review technology options and strategies that facilitate just and equitable deployments.
Cover Image: Snow on the hill leading to the Texas Capitol during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. Image: wikimedia user Jno.Skinner.