In Africa solar power mobile towers can help extend the network and cut out diesel power. Here’s how a company in Guinea is extending digital opportunities, sustainably.

Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Guinea has good mobile network coverage. That’s essential for economic development and for connecting people with digital services that can improve their lives.

But operating mobile phone masts takes energy. And in Guinea, there is a strain on the energy grid. Demand for electricity is outpacing capacity, leading to frequent power cuts. During a power cut, the mobile signal cuts out too. Orange Guinée, one of Guinea’s mobile networks, is tackling this problem with some green innovation.

Challenging terrain

“Orange has 1 500 sites across the country, and covering all of it and reaching the population of 12.4 million is a challenge in itself,” says Eli Mattar, chief strategy officer at IPT Powertech. IPT Powertech Guinea is responsible for handling the upgrades to Orange Guinée’s network, one site at a time.

“We are covering the whole of the country with all of its landscapes, ranging between mountains, forests and tough terrains through to rivers, lakes and oceans.”

IPT Powertech started out making batteries for cars, but branched out into telecoms in the mid-1990s. Battery technology has played a key part in their success in building such infrastructure. In telecom infrastructure their focus is on two key elements: renewable energy and energy efficiency. As mobile phone towers require a permanent connection to power, but power supplies in Guinea are unreliable, most towers are currently hooked up to diesel generators as well as the main grid. But now, they are installing photovoltaic panels on the masts as a back-up, significantly reducing the need for the generators and therefore cutting emissions drastically.

In the most affected areas, power availability ranges from six to 12 hours per day. All of these sites require stable power back-up, and that is what the solar panels will provide, by powering batteries to keep the sites going.

“This allows a reduction of more than 80% in the diesel consumed by the network,” Mattar explains.

Going off the grid

The government of Guinea does have plans in place to extend the country’s electricity network. In the meantime, Orange Guinée is able to to use the photovoltaic panel-powered masts to install new off-grid sites to boost the mobile network, which will improve coverage in terms of reach in underserved rural areas, and strength in urban ones. The EIB is financing this project with $30 million. Another financier is DEG, the German Investment Corporation, a development finance institution and subsidiary of KfW.

“These sites bring tremendous challenges for fuelling and preventative maintenance. Through this operation, we will avoid burning 10.7 million litres of diesel,” says Mattar.

The company has identified the most efficient equipment possible, designed to last a long time, minimising the energy wasted and the need for replacement parts.

There is also an indirect benefit. “We are cutting the emissions and waste by reducing the activities required for operation,” he says. “This includes weekly travel to maintain diesel generators, change the oil and replace the parts.”

Increased reliability

Digital platforms are creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, start-ups and businesses involved in many different sectors by instantly connecting them with clients and potential clients. Mobile banking is changing lives by enabling instant payment for goods and services. Reliable connections are crucial to keeping this going, and this project will help Orange Guinée and its clients.

In 2019, Orange built over 200 new sites. In 2020, another 220 are planned. The sites are scalable to accept 3G, 4G and even 5G technologies without requiring extra investment from an energy point of view.

“It almost immediately increases the reliability of the network and reduces outages per year to near zero, in both urban and rural areas,” says Mattar.

Orange Guinée will save money, as it will no longer have to invest in diesel and generators. Those savings can be put back into extending the network with the new, green equipment–helping Guinea’s entrepreneurs and an emerging generation to have the platforms they need to create their own opportunities.