5G and sustainability: the role of green 5G in the energy transition 

The sustainability benefits of 5G and its role in enablement use cases are two areas of increasing strategic importance for telcos. This article explores the difference between sustainability in the network and network-enabled sustainability applications.

The environmental impact of 5G

5G networks are more energy efficient than their 4G predecessors. This means that they consume less power than previous forms of network infrastructure when performing the same functions, while also being faster and more reliable. For example, a 5G cell site takes just 15% of the energy of a 4G cell site to transmit the same data. For this reason, a faster transition to 5G globally could save 0.5 billion tonnes of CO₂ by 2030.

At the same time, there is expected to be significant growth in the number of connected devices and new data heavy use cases that 5G can enable in the coming years, which is expected to considerably increase network energy consumption . As a result, operators deploying 5G should be conscious to minimise increasing energy costs and carbon emissions that arise from data growth. Some of these initiatives are explored within this article.

5G is also an important enabler of more sustainable outcomes across other industries thanks to the new use cases it gives rise to. Some of these use cases are featured in this report, but for more details on telecoms sustainability use cases please visit our net-zero use case enablement directory.

5G networks and sustainability

5G networks have more advanced features than previous network generations. They are equipped to process high volumes of data with minimal delay (ultra low latency) and support an extremely high density of connected devices (massive machine type communication). This improved connectivity has unlocked a number of new 5G-enabled sustainability services that individuals, businesses and governments can implement to reduce their carbon footprints and achieve other sustainability goals. But improved connectivity will also mean more devices are connected to the network, increasing network energy consumption. Telcos and service users need to take steps now to limit the environmental impact resulting from this.

The environmental impact of 5G therefore encompasses both the more energy efficient network technology that helps telcos to minimise their own environmental footprint, as well as the enabling technology that telcos can deploy to help businesses, governments, and consumers reduce their own environmental impact.

 

Many solutions are being trialled to improve the sustainability of the 5G network

  • Nokia and Elisa’s 5G liquid cooling station uses wasted energy from Elisa’s networks to heat buildings and water. This has enabled Elisa to reduce the energy use of its 5G networks by 30% and reduce total CO₂ emissions by 80%.
  • Some operators are making use of intelligent network software that enable base stations to power down depending on quieter times of the day (e.g. at night) or general low traffic periods. Innovation like this is key for the telecoms industry, that currently produces c. 0.8% of all global emissions. We’ve explored these themes in more depth in our report, why energy management is critical to 5G success.
  • e& is decarbonising its network using sustainable 5G solutions. It is planning to achieve this by partnering with Ericsson to implement changes like intelligent RAN energy-saving software features, as well as other initiatives like its global product take back program to drive greater levels of recycling and responsible disposal of e-waste across e&’s network.

 

5G-enabled sustainability solutions

5G technologies have many and diverse applications, meaning that they can address a wide range of sustainability objectives. These connected technology enablement services represent an exciting opportunity for telcos to differentiate, find new sources of revenue, and contribute to global sustainability objectives.

For example, some smart city connected technology use cases are well established, including smart street lighting. In addition, 5G is also being used to address environmental concerns as distinct as pesticide use on farms, food waste in schools and fuel efficiency on freight routes.

Currently, many telcos’ 5G-enabled solutions on the market are positioned primarily as providing cost-saving or efficiency-enhancing benefits, even though they also reduce emissions as a by-product of their primary objective. As businesses accelerate towards net zero, capturing where existing 5G-enabled solutions are also reducing emissions, and then quantifying that benefit for the solutions’ customers, will become essential for telcos seeking to establish their ability to help their customers to reach their climate goals.

The diagram below illustrates some existing 5G-enabled sustainability solutions. You can find more use cases detailed in our net zero enablement use case directory. 

5G connected technologies have diverse sustainability applications

Some examples from our use case directory are detailed below:

  • Telia and Ericsson’s Autonomous Electric Bus solution relies on 5G networking capabilities for positioning and live feed video prioritisation. In trials, 5G control towers were used to remotely manage the buses and transmit live video feeds to track travel and ensure passenger safety. Automated vehicles, enabled by 5G IoT technologies, are more fuel efficient than manually driven alternatives, reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from public transport, while also making public transport more accessible and reducing operating costs.
  • Proximus’ Weed and Pest Control solutions use drones to capture images of agricultural sites and AI to identify the weed or disease pattern in the crop. Proximus provides the 5G connectivity that allows data to be sent from the drone to the analytics platform. The analytics platform then creates a task map for a burner equipped robot (for weeds) or pesticide sprayer (for pests or disease). Rather than treating an entire field when pests or disease are present, this allows farmers to target only the affected areas. By 2030, farmers in Europe will have to reduce their use of pesticides by 50%. In this test case, Proximus found pesticide use could be reduced by 80%.
  • The City of Rotterdam smart waste system uses IoT sensors in bins and at other waste management sites to monitor filling percentage. This data is communicated through KPN’s 5G LoRa network to a centralised management system that determines dynamic routes for waste collection vehicles. 165 dynamic collection routes have replaced 203 static routes, resulting in a 20% reduction in kilometres driven by waste collection vehicles. In turn, this has led to a 20% reduction in CO₂ emissions as well as a 25% decrease in labour and equipment costs.

Author: Anna Boyle is a consultant at STL Partners, specialising in sustainability

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