Helping 5G score a TEN


5G promises to transform the global mobile data network into one that is dramatically faster and more responsive while connecting an endless array of smart devices in new ways.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 2-2019.  Read all articles via our digital magazine today.

Over the past several months, carriers have begun to roll out the first 5G pilots, while device makers are busy developing the first generation of 5G-capable smartphones, tablets and sensors.

But carriers and their partners still face a range of challenges they must overcome as they build out the 5G future, including how to meet the energy demands of this expanding global network. How they meet that challenge could determine how quickly 5G becomes a reality for consumers and business users – and whether or not it can live up to its full potential.

The promise of 5G

The potential is enormous, which is why 5G is both so highly anticipated and so complex. Unlike previous changes to the mobile data network, this transformation is about much more than increasing the speed and volume of data moving across the network. The goal is to enable 5G connections to reach everywhere – eliminating “dead spots” inside buildings and enabling billions of “smart objects” to be constantly connected to the network.

The technology is also designed for extremely low latency which will be essential for the control of autonomous vehicles and key infrastructure. When it is complete, the 5G network promises to make the Internet of Things and so-called smart cities a daily reality.

Utilities are among the businesses that could enjoy the greatest benefit from the 5G network. Faster, ubiquitous, low-latency data communication will enable utilities to upgrade their complex communications systems to allow highly efficient and effective remote control of their entire infrastructure. It is considered a key technology in the development of the next-generation electric grid and the management of demand and distributed energy generation.

From thousands of cells to millions of nodes

For 5G to reach this potential, however, the existing network of communications nodes must be greatly expanded. Instead of the single frequency band of existing cell networks, 5G will operate in three bands, each of which has different characteristics in terms of useful distance and ability to penetrate buildings. As a result, today’s cell towers will have to be augmented by a new and vast array of smaller transmission sites, in some cases spaced as little as 500 feet (152 m) apart. In some dense urban areas, that could translate into a wireless communications node on every street corner.

Utilities may benefit from the expansion but they are also concerned about meeting the energy demands of this enormous network. The EU has projected that telecom operators in the region could consume 35.8 TWh of power annually by 2020. Vodaphone reported that its 310,000 communications base stations consumed more than 4 TWh in 2018, representing 65% of its total energy consumption worldwide.

Reliability also is a vital piece of this new data network. While it’s frustrating if you lose signal when you’re streaming a video on your tablet or getting traffic updates on your car’s navigation system, it’s a lot more serious if the signal is controlling driverless cars, monitoring critical patients at a hospital, or managing a city’s water system. If we’re going to trust 5G with such vital connections, the power can’t go out.

Choosing the right technology

These two demands can be met by the deployment of microgrids that combine PV panels or other renewable energy sources with battery storage to ensure these nodes remain “always on”.

The choice of battery technology will be just as important for these microgrids in order to make them as reliable and as cost-efficient as possible.

Of the available battery technologies for microgrids, rechargeable Zinc based battery chemistry and in particular Zinc-air deserves consideration.

This technology has already been proven in deployments in some of the most challenging and remote installations for telecommunications and utilities. For example, Duke Energy installed a solar-powered microgrid using a Zinc-air battery system to operate a vital communications tower in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. The microgrid consists of 12.6 kW of PV solar panels, along with 95.1 kWh of battery storage, installed atop the 5,842-foot (1,780.6 m) summit of Mount Sterling.

As utilities are called on to power this transformation of the global data network, they have an opportunity to help transform their own businesses as well. The strategic deployment of these costeffective and reliable microgrids will be both an important tool and a key asset for the future. SEI

About the author

Ramkumar Krishnan is a Chief Technology Officer at NantEnergy. He joined NantEnergy in March 2008 and led product and R&D teams in the development of the company’s game changing rechargeable and long duration metal air energy storage technology.