Verizon sees renewable energy backup system as a profit-making venture

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 5, 2014

Verizon Communications Inc., the United States’ largest cellular and broadband provider, polished its green business credentials last week by announcing it would effectively double its solar power generation at 13 company-owned sites in six states.

The additional solar power, which should boost the firm’s renewable energy portfolio to an industry-leading 25 megawatts, was more than a gesture toward promoting clean energy and environmental sustainability.

While the company has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by 50 percent over 2009 levels by 2020, a goal to be met partly by increased use of solar and wind energy, its decision spoke to bottom-line concerns.

“Verizon isn’t going green just to go green,” James Gowen, Verizon’s chief sustainability officer, said in a poston the company’s website highlighting the new nearly $40 million solar investment. “We have analyzed the on-site green energy business case and anticipate a positive [return on investment] over the next several years.”

More specifically, Gowen explained in a follow-up interview, Verizon has identified multiple bottom-line benefits from its renewable energy investment, most notably the technology’s role in shoring up the “robustness and resiliency of our networks.”

Those networks, which are the backbone of Verizon’s voice, high-speed data and video delivery across multiple platforms, depend on a constant flow of electricity. A loss of power to the company’s critical systems, even for a brief time, can cause huge disruptions, not only to Verizon’s customers but to nearly every sector of the economy that relies on electronic transfers of information across the company’s networks.

Yet, such outages do occur, often because of inclement weather but also unforeseen technical or operational failures that can crash networks for minutes, hours or even days, as occurred across significant swaths of New York and New Jersey during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

“No matter what superstorm or disaster comes, our priority is to keep uninterrupted service to our customers,” Gowen wrote in the Internet post titled “5 Reasons Verizon Is Tripling its Solar Power.”

Protecting service continuity

“This investment is not going to take us 100 percent off the grid in any specific location,” he added, “but it will help reduce the load on our nation’s power grid while enhancing our service continuity — even during outages.”

Experts say such backup systems, especially energy systems that do not rely on traditional grid infrastructure, are an increasingly important tool for companies like Verizon and its large telecommunication rivals — AT&T Inc., Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. — to keep networks up and running when traditional power grids go down or are interrupted by inclement weather or other unplanned events.

David Robinson, a senior researcher and expert in predictive analytics at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, said that solar photovoltaics (PV) in particular have become a focus for telecom firms because of PV’s improving efficiency and reliability, as well as the fact that solar panels generally require little maintenance once installed.

“Telecoms need power at a variety of levels, including at local distribution centers and relay towers that are distributed across the landscape, including in some remote areas,” Robinson said. “These kinds of facilities are very likely to go either completely solar [for backup power] or use a variety of systems such as solar, wind power and natural gas” to maintain operations during electricity shortages.

“The key here,” Robinson added, “is that these kinds of [renewable energy] systems make telecom networks more robust to unexpected events.”

For the nation’s largest telecoms, the ultimate test of resiliency came in October 2012, when a weakened but still-destructive Sandy roared ashore in the nation’s most densely populated — and most wirelessly networked — region of the country.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly a quarter of all cell sites in the areas most affected by Sandy, including New York City, crashed due to lost power, flooding or other weather-related disruptions, and in some cases those networks remained offline or severely constrained for days after the storm, creating a communications crisis in the midst of a natural disaster.

Gowen said Verizon’s network was restored more quickly than some others due to the company’s investment in seven gas-fired fuel cells at its Garden City, N.Y., office and call center. When built in 2005, the fuel cell complex was the largest power system of its kind in the country.

AT&T makes emissions and refueling ‘go away’

Another outgrowth of the Sandy outages was a 2013 partnership between telecom giant AT&T, solar firm Goal Zero, Brooklyn-based design firm Pensa and the city of New York to install a network of solar charging stations in city parks, beaches and other public places that allow individuals to charge phones and mobile devices for free.

The program was expanded this year and now includes 45 units in more than 20 sites across New York’s five boroughs.

Over the last few years, Dallas-based AT&T has also significantly expanded its non-grid electricity resources, from 2.1 MW of capacity in 2010 to nearly 20 MW today. Those resources include mostly gas-fired fuel cells constructed at sites in the Northeast, California and Texas. But the company also purchases roughly 4.4 MW of solar energy under power purchase agreements.

John Schinter, AT&T’s assistant vice president of energy management, said the company uses its fuel-cell generation as an everyday power supply for its large data and call centers, which in turn reduces its reliance on grid-delivered electricity.

Solar power, while offering both environmental and cost benefits to the company, has remained a lower priority due to panels’ smaller generation capacity and footprint issues, Schinter said. But as with Verizon, AT&T is expanding solar at some remote sites to take advantage of the technology’s low-maintenance, high-durability and self-charging capabilities.

“With solar, the emissions go away,” as does the need for refueling portable generators with diesel or other fuels, Schinter said. “The [solar] sites that we’re talking about are remote, generally speaking, and have small electrical loads. They could be on top of a mountain or another area that’s hard to get to. … So we do have cases where solar totally makes sense.”

Schinter also noted that AT&T has dedicated itself to making energy efficiency gains across its suite of operations. Such measures have netted an estimated $191 million in energy cost savings annually and reduced by 60 percent the amount of energy required to transmit 1 terabyte of data, he said.