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Better Cell Service with Fewer Emissions: The Case of Sierra Leone and Liberia

When thinking about energy-intensive industries, mobile phones aren’t top of mind.

But the towers that connect the world’s 5.25 billion mobile users consume terawatts of power, accounting for 3 percent of global electricity consumption, according to the GSM Association, a telecommunications trade group. That demand often makes network operators some of the most energy-intensive companies in a given country or region.

In places where the electrical grid is unreliable, much of that power comes from generators burning costly, dirty diesel fuel. Where there is no grid, mobile operators must run many of their generators 24 hours a day to provide reliable service.      

It’s a dirty way to keep calls from dropping. Worldwide, diesel-powered cell towers pump 7 million metric tons of CO into the atmosphere every year, the GSM Association says.

One place where diesel prevails is Sub-Saharan Africa. Only half the population has access to electricity there, according to the World Bank. Half of all cell towers are off the grid, or are on unreliable grids, and 80 percent of those towers run on diesel, GSM says.

To provide service in Sierra Leone and Liberia, wireless company Orange has had to truck thousands of gallons of fuel to remote towers, then post guards to protect the huge cache from thieves. Fuel delivery becomes even more difficult during the rainy season.

The good news is that Orange is cutting its fuel consumption by 75 percent through a partnership with Escotel, a company that specializes in making mobile networks more energy efficient. Backed by the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), Escotel is upgrading more than 600 towers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, adding solar panels, batteries, and energy-management systems that keep the generators turned off as much as possible.

“Each tower collects solar energy whenever possible, then energy from the grid if it’s available, and then from the generator, if necessary, with each source charging the batteries,” says Escotel Chief Executive Michel Hubert. The savings means fewer refueling trips to remote towers, less risk of theft, and less damage to the climate.

Before the upgrades, each tower consumed about 1,000 liters of fuel a month. Once the systems are in place, they’ll use about 250 liters. The transformation is like turning an old gas-guzzling car into a hybrid, Hubert says.

Escotel helps in other ways, too. State-of-the-art equipment for the towers is expensive. To jump that hurdle, Escotel doesn’t charge for the improvements up front, but, rather, provides energy as a service under long-term contract, so operators pay for power as they use it.

Escotel’s upgrades are being done by Sagemcom, a French company that has developed a range of climate-saving technologies for use in remote places. Sagemcom is an equity partner in Escotel, along with Inspired Evolution, a clean-energy investment fund, and Norfund, a private-equity investor backed by the government of Norway.

Mobile Phone
Using solar energy, Escotel reduces diesel fuel consumption of mobile phone towers by 75% on average

Because both Sierra Leone and Liberia have a history of strife, Escotel tapped MIGA to insure up to $25.6 million of the partners’ investments for ten years, protecting them if conflict endangers operations, or if governments restrict the transfer of the revenue.

MIGA’s guarantees gave investors the rock-solid protection they wanted, Hubert says. “Without MIGA, our investors would be taking on all the political risk for ten years,” he says. “They needed MIGA cover in order to proceed.”

After the retrofits, Escotel plans to install brand new towers for Orange in underserved parts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, doubling the number of towers in both countries. Most of the new ones will be powered by hybrid systems that run on solar most of the time.

Escotel plans to bid for work in other African countries with limited electrical grids. Its offering is attractive for mobile operators there because the company completes its upgrades without subsidies. Companies like Orange pay Escotel to save them money. “From the operator’s perspective, the product pays for itself,” Hubert says.

In Sierra Leone, the upgrades will cut CO emissions by 58,000 tons over eight years. In Liberia, it will cut 158,000 tons, making the project a promising long-term investment in the climate. More noticeable to customers? Far fewer missed connections and dropped calls.