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Can 5G Save the Planet?
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Can 5G Save the Planet?

Climate Change’s Unlikely Ally

Illustrations by Dan Matutina
Illustrations by Dan Matutina

The 5G future promises more. More speed. More security. More support for cutting-edge applications such as robotic telemedicine and driverless cars.

Yet to achieve its full potential while protecting the environment, the next generation of wireless networking will need to deliver less in one key area.

Energy consumption.

From sleek mobile phones to ubiquitous cellular antennas to sprawling data centers, our increasingly connected digital lives require increasing amounts of electricity. The result? Increasing contributions to the carbon emissions that scientists believe are the driving force behind climate change and planetary warming.

The numbers tell the story. Canadian researchers estimate that by next year, information and communications technology (ICT) will account for 3.5 percent of annual global carbon emissions, a larger share than the aviation and shipping industries will account for.

That figure could jump to 14 percent of worldwide emissions by 2040, roughly equivalent to the percentage now attributable to the entire population of the United States.

Inside and outside the telecommunications industry, there’s concern that the pending 5G shift could play a significant role in any rise. By 2022, networks are expected to support 26 billion devices and connections worldwide, an increase of about 10 billion from 2015.

A 5G world includes many more wireless devices, including security cameras, smart appliances, and connected factory robots. More devices transmitting much more data figures to require far more power. Telecom sustainability expert Anders Andrae calls this situation a potential “perfect storm” of increased energy consumption.

“This is a real concern for 5G,” says Zach Chang, a carrier network product manager at the communications technology company Huawei. “It will be much more powerful than 4G in terms of processing power and bandwidth and has the potential to cover the whole Earth’s population.

“All of that will increase energy consumption. If the efficiency of the entire infrastructure doesn’t go up, it won’t make financial or environmental sense. It won’t be sustainable.”

Only that doesn’t have to be the case. International standards for 5G call for reduced energy use compared to today’s 4G networks, and companies such as Huawei are designing and building components with dramatically increased efficiency in mind.

The ultimate goal? Use less power to transmit more data, decreasing the wattage required for each bit of internet traffic.

So far, results have been promising. While recently discussing sustainability, Huawei Chairman Liang Hua said that with 4G, a single kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity is sufficient to download about 300 high-definition movies. With 5G, that same kilowatt hour can power about 5,000 ultra-high definition movie downloads.

Or consider base stations, which transmit and receive the radio signals at the heart of wireless networks. These power-hungry sites can account for as much as 80 percent of total network energy use. Nearly half of the electricity consumed by each station goes to the air-conditioning used to cool transmission equipment.

In the city of Hangzhou, Huawei and a major Chinese telecom provider have deployed new 5G base stations that require fewer heat-generating electronic components. They also use sophisticated power management software and trade air-conditioning for open-air cooling.

Compared to 4G stations, the new stations use almost 20 percent less electricity. That saves an estimated 4,130 kWh of power per site per year, which translates to about 1,125 kilograms (kg) of carbon emissions.

Similarly, other companies in Europe and Japan have developed base stations that use liquid cooling and solar power. Respectively, those solutions reduce energy operating expenses by nearly a third and CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent.

What could these reductions mean at scale? Between now and 2022, Huawei estimates, more than 2 million base stations in China alone will be built or reconstructed for 5G.

Apply that number to the energy-use reductions achieved in Hangzhou, and that’s 8.3 billion kWh of electricity and 2.3 billion kg of carbon emissions saved per year. The first number is almost the same as total annual household power consumption in Iceland. The second is equivalent to the yearly CO2 absorption of 130 million trees.

“When you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of base stations, even a 1 percent savings in power use is huge,” says Scott Jamar, Huawei’s vice president of Industry Relations.

Better base station efficiency isn’t the only way to reduce 5G power use. Huawei and others are developing additional solutions, including:

Sleep Modes

Current 4G networks use almost the same amount of energy regardless of how much data they are handling. By contrast, 5G will allow telecoms to reduce power consumption during periods of lower network traffic—like late at night, when most customers are sleeping instead of using their mobile devices.

“I work in an industrial park,” Chang says. “During the day, lots of people go there to work. They’re checking emails and making lots of phone calls. The nearby base station has to work at peak capacity to process all of that data.

“But at night, those same people leave. So you don’t need that peak capacity. With 5G, you can lower your power use significantly, without sacrificing performance for the individual user who happens to still be there and online.”

Analytics & Artificial Intelligence

The data centers that store our photos, host our websites, and handle our cloud computing consume an enormous amount of energy. In the United States alone, data centers are expected to use about 73 billion kWh by next year.

As is the case with base stations, much of that power goes to keeping equipment cool enough to function properly. And that’s where data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI) can help.

Deploying an algorithm that learns how best to adjust fans, vents, and other cooling equipment to cut power consumption, a major American tech company reduced its data center cooling costs by about 40 percent. Meanwhile, a leading Chinese telecom claims it was able to reduce power consumption at its data centers by roughly 30 percent during recent AI trials.

Similarly, Huawei has helped telecoms in China, Morocco, and South Africa lower power consumption on their existing networks by 12 percent. How? Through a software-based analytic system that allows operators to visualize and better manage their overall energy use.

“The main thing AI does is look at different data sets and make sense out of them,” Jamar says. “With energy efficiency, it gives us the ability to fine tune our energy use in different areas based on network traffic, like the difference between an urban area and a rural one. And those optimizations reduce power consumption.”

Ultimately, 5G’s most important contribution to energy efficiency may come through enabling users. Environmentalists and policy think tanks alike believe that smart, wirelessly-connected appliances, factories, cities, and transportation grids will be able to optimize and reduce their power consumption, just like networks and data centers. The end result? Lower costs and a meaningful contribution to global efforts to mitigate climate change.

“The thing about 5G is that we will have much more capacity to incorporate sensors into daily life, from industry to our own homes,” Chang says. “And that will allow us to modulate our energy use in so many places we’ve overlooked, just because we didn’t have the communications tools to make equipment truly smart. With 5G, our society as a whole can become much more energy efficient.”