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Viable alternative to curbing air pollution: Nigerian telcos taking the lead?

By Segun Akande

THE beginning of the 21st century marked the start of a major transformation of the Nigerian telecommunication industry. In the year 2000, the industry experienced a great leap when the government of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo issued an operating licence to Econet Wireless. The entire Nigerian citizenry had a major relief. Reaching out to loved ones, business partners over long distances was no more going to be an issue. Among other things, subscribers had hoped as well that over time, the very expensive tariff was going to tilt southwards, data services were going to be cheaply accessible, banking operations and services to customers were going to be seamless. As envisioned, it happened exactly! In fact, expectations were exceeded!

air pollution

In no time, after Econet Wireless, Mobile Telecommunication Networks, MTN, Globacom Nigeria and Etisalat got their licences too. The Nigeria Telecommunications, NITEL, also rolled out a GSM arm called MNet (now defunct). This altogether put the subscribers at advantage. The competition between these telecommunication companies, telcos, has been stiff since then, with prices dropping on all products and services. However, all we have benefited in ease of life, we have unfortunately lost largely to poor health!

Between the year 2000 and now, the Nigerian topography has been littered with not less than 50,000 on-air Base Transceiver Stations, BTS. This means over 50,000 diesel-powered electricity generators (called DGs in telecommunications parlance) continuously release carbon monoxide into the air space around us. A sense of the degree of damage this causes could be made in thinking of the 150 deaths per 100,000 people attributable to air pollution in Nigeria.

According to the Health Effects Institute, HEI, in a 2018 report on annual State of the Global Air Report, SGAR, air quality in Nigeria is among the deadliest in the world, causing very high death rates. Extreme air pollution sources like generator fumes and vehicle emissions were identified as largely responsible. Nigerians are aware of the dangers these telecommunication sites pose but uncertain of our resolve to end it. It was a case to be likened to a willingness to exchange a few years of our collective living for ease of communication. Until recently, there were no alternative means of powering the active equipment at these BTS sites, no thanks to the unreliable power supply from our national grid.

The disturbing noise of continuously working generators is another major environmental pollutant. Though the maximum healthy noise level is 60dB of sound, but generators at BTS sites often sound louder. With the majority of these generators running over 20,000 hours unchanged, the noise levels often exceed 90dB, even more as run hours increase. Today, however, the narrative has changed tremendously, with even bigger promises of lesser air pollution and consequently, ridiculously cheap voice and data services provided by these telcos. It is interesting to know that a search by the telcos for cheaper ways of running a business has not only become environmentally-benefiting but also economically advantageous to the subscribers.

The leading telecoms infrastructure companies in Nigeria went into the massive rollout of alternative power solutions for their sites from 2010 till date. This has since seen at least 20,000 sites powered in an unconventional manner. The regular way was to run an Alternating Current Generator, ACDG, nonstop. A 15KVA generator will consume 1,200 litres of diesel in a month with an average DC load of 30 Amperes and AC load of 15Amperes. The combustion of this volume of diesel will produce about 3216 kilogrammes of carbon monoxide. Too dangerous for humanity when we make a sense of it across over 50,000 BTSs. The diesel consumption increases with increasing the site’s load.

As an alternative, Direct Current Generators, DCDGs, and backup batteries are deployed alongside solar panels to keep the sites running. The solar panels run the site as well as charge the batteries during the day, while the batteries take over when there is low or no sunlight. An adequate amount of battery strings of 12V165Ah rating per battery can run at least 20,000 hours or more depending on-site load, after which the DCDG will take over for only two to three hours before the sun rises again. This has proven to be a very effective way of reducing air pollution, taking Nigeria several steps closer to the clean energy era.

It is great news to know that this will continue with little support from the government. The telcos have continually sought ways of improving on their green energy solutions. This is particularly because the lesser the need to run diesel engines, the lesser the cost of operation. I believe the future is brighter for telcos with clean energy solutions at the core of their organisational objectives. A continuous effort to eradicate the use of diesel will be endearing to subscribers because of the consequent reduction of noise and carbon monoxide in the environment. It is a win-win solution: telcos spend several billion less, subscribers get lesser environmental threat and cheaper call and data rates.

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Since founding till date, the combined profit declaration of MTN, Airtel, Globacom and Etisalat are well over $32bn. Then in 2018, a jaw-dropping profit of $453m was declared by MTN. Bharti Airtel declared $312.9million for the first half of 2019. It has been momentous in the past ten years as there has been the massive rollout of alternative power projects, thereby creating thousands of jobs during the project period. Clearly, the future holds even more beautiful realities for Nigeria in the area of air pollution, especially because it has become popular among the telcos that the greener they go, the bigger their revenue. Telecoms infrastructure giant, IHS Towers is leading in this regard, followed by American towers. Sooner than envisioned, the use of diesel-powered generators will reduce monumentally, leading us several steps closer to the entire clean energy industry.

The Ministries of Communication, Environment, Agriculture and Health are duty-bound to encourage telecommunication companies to adopt only the clean energy alternative to solving air pollution challenges ravaging the Nigeria airspace and ensure compliance to the existing environmental laws. To nip the menace of air pollution occasioned by diesel-powered generating plants nationwide in the bud, all hands must be on deck. We must embrace the green solution and ensure its implementation in BTSs across the country in total.

Other industries must be encouraged to embrace this as well. Nigeria stands to benefit because the health of its citizenry is bolstered with an attendant increase in life expectancy.

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