Delivering Innovative Sustainability Solutions with 5G

How the enablement effect of 5G helps sectors be more energy-efficient

The continuing dramatic growth in data usage and connectivity poses a significant challenge for developers of next-generation information and communications technology (ICT), as telecom operators must cut their energy consumption and carbon emissions, while supporting rising demand.

Addressing this challenge will need a transformative approach to energy efficiency, in which 5G will play a critical role. This is because for the first time energy efficiency is one of the main considerations when planning and optimizing new mobile networks. Many breakthroughs—from smart power for base stations to preventative maintenance— can make 5G the most sustainable networks yet.

Other emerging power-efficiency techniques in 5G networks include:

  • Energy “scavenging”, where energy is harvested from the local network environment, or even from radio frequency signals themselves, providing renewable energy to power huge numbers of Internet of things (IoT) devices.
  • Big data and machine learning, which are already used extensively in the cloud to reduce energy consumption by turning elements on and off pre-emptively rather than waiting for traffic levels to change before reacting.

But aside from reducing its own energy needs and driving adoption of renewable energy sources in ICT, 5G can help other industry sectors to save more energy by operating more flexibly and efficiently.

A report published in 2019 by the GSMA in collaboration with the Carbon Trust, titled The Enablement Effect, describes 5G’s impact on enabling energy reduction in other industries as being about 10 times greater than the amount of carbon emissions generated by the mobile sector. These are defined in the study as the energy to operate networks, the emissions from those networks and the emissions from mobile devices.

According to the report, the application of mobile technologies has already helped cut carbon emissions globally by about 2.135 billion tonnes, as a result of lower electricity, gas and fuel consumption. This reduction is being driven by the digital transformation of utility networks, which is making them more intelligent, reliable, efficient and therefore greener. In other words, using data flows to optimize energy flows.

An example of this is China Southern Power Grid (CSPG) in Shenzhen, China. In partnership with mobile operator China Mobile and network infrastructure provider Huawei, CSPG built the world’s first full-service smart grid that applies 5G-based networking in all phases of electric power services, from power transmission, transformation, distribution and finally to consumption.

To create a dedicated network for CSPG on China Mobile’s 5G network, the companies combined standalone 5G capabilities with end-to-end network slicing and mobile edge computing. They effectively used 5G virtual private network technology to reshape CSPG into a smart grid. I wrote about this deployment in more detail in A 5G Boost for Cleaner Energy in China.

A high-capacity, ubiquitous and low-latency 5G network interacting with technologies such as edge computing and cloud services can help industries implement new processes as an integral part of an energy efficiency programme. For example, more dynamic allocation of resources in an organization could include supporting more efficient supply chains, helped by predictive analytics; or automated, intelligent vehicle management in all manner of smart traffic, logistics and transportation environments. Alternatively, it could be used to aid data processes that lower the need for operational or leisure travel, such as remote medical diagnosis, drone-based site surveying, or virtual training or tourism.

One of the best examples of how 5G can interact with other emerging technologies to bring many energy-saving methods together is with smart cities. Smart city programmes, like those implemented by some C40 cities — a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change — can have dramatic results in supporting a fully efficient, digital and sustainable way of living, working and travelling. In these deployments, 5G connectivity is already becoming an important enabler of sustainability-driven applications.

But for the enablement effect to be felt in reducing energy consumption, 5G has to be adopted, and here the ICT industry is making the case for greater uptake of 5G alongside other digital technologies. As an example, Vodafone has recently urged the UK government to write targets and incentives for 5G and IoT adoption into its forthcoming net-zero strategy blueprints, which are to be published ahead of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in November.

Vodafone argues that the UK government should create a regulatory and policy framework that removes barriers to adoption and incentivizes the uptake of 5G and IoT by public and private enterprises. Possible measures include financial support for major industrial sectors, increased weighting for carbon-reducing technologies in government procurement processes, and public funding for regional IoT and 5G innovation centres.

Of course, mobile operators want to accelerate adoption of 5G, but there are crucial points that validate the enablement effect. A report co-authored by Vodafone and WPI Economics suggests 5G and IoT could lower carbon emissions in three different industrial sectors by 4% every year; equivalent to reductions of 6.6 million to 9.3 million tonnes in manufacturing, 2.4 million to 4.8 million tonnes in transport and 2.7 million to 3.3 million tonnes in agriculture.

A broad range of industrial, government and enterprise sectors can deploy 5G networks for myriad applications to reduce carbon emissions and usage of energy resources. This includes those that are among the chief culprits of high fossil fuel usage such as manufacturing, transportation and the utility sector itself.

Although deploying 5G to support digital and green transformation creates some increased energy consumption by the mobile sector, the reduction in carbon emissions it enables is 10 times greater, according to the GSMA. Provided the telecom industry does all it can to cut its own power consumption, promote clean electricity generation, build green ICT infrastructure and focus on intelligent energy storage to ensure it keeps itself clean, this is a benefit that cannot be ignored.