Fuel cells have become an alternative source of energy generation to traditional diesel generators in our work to reduce carbon usage and noise pollution.

Vodafone now has over 122 million customers in emerging markets who use mobile data on their smartphones. Data traffic over our networks in those countries nearly doubled over the past year.

We are expanding our networks to keep our customers connected, but are focused on minimising any increase in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Electricity grids remain the most cost-efficient energy source for our radio base stations. However, in some areas within developing countries utility grids can be unreliable or non-existent, requiring robust on-site power generation.

Diesel generators are the traditional solution to this problem, but there are many disadvantages, including high carbon emissions, noise, maintenance needs and theft. Solar panels can be installed to generate free energy and reduce a diesel generator's runtime, lowering emissions. However, solar is not always suitable for built up urban areas.

Mobile data in emerging markets

Data traffic over our networks in emerging markets has nearly doubled over the past year.
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Vodafone now has over 122 million customers in emerging markets who use mobile data on their smartphones.

Free from harmful emissions

Fuel cells on the other hand, are largely free from harmful emissions because they use alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen, menthol and even water. Water based fuel cells, for example, work on the principle of splitting water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, wherein the hydrogen is used as fuel source. Fuel cells are also less attractive to thieves and are quiet running, making them more suitable for use in some urban areas, where noise is a concern.

Vodacom, our South Africa business, started to use pure hydrogen fuel cell systems eight years ago and now has more than 200 fuel cells deployed.

More recently, we have started to explore other fuel sources for fuel cells, trialling several solutions at our Site Solution Innovation Centre in Johannesburg.

While we would always like to use renewable energy where possible to power mobile sites, the energy demand is often too large and the capital investment costs too high. Therefore, the optimum solution is typically to combine two energy sources supported by an intelligent on site management controller (see below).

Options for energy generation at mobile sites

There is no single technology which qualifies as an ideal energy source in every location where we operate. However, by continuing to test and deploy alternative energy technologies like fuel cells we can minimise the increases in energy consumption and carbon emissions while providing the benefits of mobile data to an ever increasing number of people in emerging markets.

For more information on how Vodafone is minimising its carbon footprint, see our 2014/15 Sustainability Report. 

About the author:

Lee Andrew Jones is a Senior Manager: Infrastructure and Energy at Vodafone Group. He has eight years’ experience in the energy management industry and is an active member of the Energy Services and Technology Association.