Vodafone calls for more partnership to achieve Net Zero target

Solar, wind, fuel cells and batteries - Vodafone calls for more innovation in green energy.

Bernd Leven, Head of Energy Performance, Vodafone, told an audience at Huawei’s Day0 conference at MWC 2022 that the operator is looking for more partnership and innovation to meet its ambitious Net Zero target.

Vodafone has committed to Net Zero emissions status by 2040, with a number of intermediate targets leading up to that date.

The first, which it met early in 2021, was to use 100% renewable electricity sources for its European networks. By 2025 it wants to extend that to all its networks, and also to have 100% of its network waste recycled or re-used.

By 2030 it wants emissions from its own operations to be fully eliminated, and it is targeting a reduction of 50% in its supply chain and JVs. Finally it wants to take action on device waste.

Vodafone doesn’t just want to impact its own operations. “We also want to help our customers reduce their emissions by 350 million tonnes by 2030,” Leven added. “Our IoT applications in smart logistic, smart cities, smart metering etc. are the main enablers and you can see showcases on our stand at MWC.”

But although Leven outlined areas where Vodafone has made progress, and where it can develop further, he also highlighted areas of opportunity for industry partners and suppliers.

To understand the scale of energy usage at a group operator like Vodafone, consider that its annual consumption is 5.8TWh. “That’s about the same total annual usage of a small country like Luxembourg,” Leven said.

73% of the electricity Vodafone consumes is used to power its access sites, and the vast majority of that is directed towards its mobile masts and towers. A further 23% of energy is used by its data centres and technology centres. 4% goes on its offices and shops

With access sites driving energy consumption the main challenge, Leven said, is keeping energy flat while data traffic grows. But it can be done. Vodafone saw growth 50% per year from 2017 to 2021, but only increased energy usage by 1%.

And although 5G will increase usage in absolute terms, it will also be more efficient.

“In the future, we will see an absolute increase in energy consumption driven by 5G which is an overlay on the existing infrastructure. However, looking at energy consumption per data traffic we see improvements between 60-80% when moving to newer network generations,” Leven said.

For Vodafone, achieving net zero means taking action across five areas. First is the use of energy efficient and low carbon solutions. Second is the use of on-site renewables. Third is negotiating power purchase agreements with developers of solar and wind farms. Fourth and fifth are the use of Renewable Energy Certificates and Offsets. For this last one, Vodafone wants to keep its use of offsets very minimal, offsetting only the carbon that it cannot avoid.

Reducing emissions

The first of that list, the switch to renewables, is the immediate priority. 80% of Vodafone’s emissions footprint is accounted for by the electricity it buys.

“By switching to renewable electricity by 2025 we will eliminate these emissions,” Leven explained. Last year Vodafone sourced 56% of its electric from renewables. This will go up significantly this year with all of Europe sourcing renewables.

The remaining 20% of emissions are from four sources, with half accounted for by the use of diesel generators that provide electricity in remote areas or when there are grid outages. Another contributor is refrigerant gases in air conditioning systems at data centres and mobile sites.

“We are avoiding these gases by using free cooling or replacing the gases with climate-friendly alternatives,” Leven said.

The key to replacing diesel generators is to find alternative on-site power sources such as wind or solar.

“We have installed 1200 sites with solar globally,” Leven said. “800 of those run a solar battery and others have some form of back up, diesel or a fuel cell. The problem with solar on tower sites is we cannot cover the whole consumption. In urban areas don’t have space at the site to cover the load and in rural sites we face loss and theft. So we are still looking at the best set up to make us more independent from the grid.”

Vodafone has also deployed micro wind turbines in Germany and is investigating transverse axis turbines in the UK, as well as vertical axis turbines that are integrated with the tower in Kenya.

But on-site renewables are not without issues for telcos. They need space, no shading and battery storage, and wind turbine solutions require maintenance and structural considerations for the tower. Fuel cells require an ecosystem for servicing the cells, and handling and delivering fuels like hydrogen. Finally the solutions still cost more than grid electricity, and are more vulnerable to damage and theft.. Fuel cells require an ecosystem for servicing the cells, and handling and delivering hydrogen. Finally the solutions still cost more than grid electricity, and are more vulnerable to damage and theft.

Leven said that operators, equipment vendors, service partners and regulators all need to come together to innovate for cost-effective climate-friendly solutions.

“We have come across good solutions but we do see the need for more innovation in that space. We are keen to move in that direction and create demand within our supply chain so we can deploy at scale. If you have interest on driving renewables, then please reach out.”