Flexenclosure is trying to wean the cell phone business in Africa off of fossil fuels.
The Swedish start-up has designed a base station for mobile networks that would run on sun and wind power. It all started with a request from telecom company Ericsson three years ago. The company needed an energy source for a potential project in Africa and wanted a more environmentally friendly solution than the conventional diesel generators that usually power base stations out of reach from electricity grids.
Right now, there are 40,000 base stations for mobile networks in Africa, most of them running on diesel. Each diesel base station consumes approximately 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of diesel per year. Soaring energy prices and falling prices for phone plans put mobile network operators in a difficult position. So the phone companies started looking for ways to reduce the cost of operating their base stations.
Flexenclosure's base station, called E-site, comes with a wind turbine in the network tower and solar panels on the roof. The renewable energy sources charge a battery that can then power the base station during the night. As a complement, it has a small diesel generator. E-site runs on an intelligent operating system, which learns and adapts to the local conditions.
"If the battery tension is low, but the system knows from experience that the sun will be rising soon, it won't use the diesel generator," says Stefan Jern, CEO of Flexenclosure in an interview. Hence, the E-site will use the best available energy source. This will reduce the use of diesel by up to 80 percent, according to Flexenclosure.
Base stations have also evolved enough so that they don't need additional cooling to operate in tropical climates like Africa. This lightens the power demands and makes solar and wind more viable options.
The solar panels on the roof are made from traditional silicon. The wind turbine is developed by Flexenclosure, and sits at a height of about 197-230 feet. It is more sensitive to lower wind speeds than the conventional turbines placed along sea shores.
There is a significant potential market for Flexenclosure's base station. Every year, 120,000 new base stations are added, catering to the 300 million to 400 million new mobile phone users adopting mobile services around the world.
For operators, there is a lot of money to be saved. The cost of running a base station on diesel amounts to $30,000 per year, according to Flexenclosure. And the fuel has to be physically brought to the site. In some remote places, it is even transported by helicopter.
A traditional base station costs $120,000 to build. An E-site is slightly more expensive, but the additional cost is won back in operational savings after 15 to 18 months, according to Flexenclosure. And after that, a company can save $120,000 to $150,000 in reduced operating costs over a five-year period.
Then there is the environmental side of it. "In a 'business as usual scenario,' the emissions from the telecom sector around the world equates to the emissions drawn from the entire traffic in London," said Jern. That can be dramatically reduced.
The largest problem when setting up E-sites in Africa is the lack of climate data. This makes it difficult to determine the optimal site for the stations.
Flexenclosure will start to sell their E-sites by the end of the year. They are not the only ones developing green base stations. Motorola has showcased a similar product in Namibia.