5G and the environment

Resources and the environment: efficient networking makes 5G more environmentally friendly

To enable Germany to benefit from the new 5G mobile telecommunications standard, the 5G mobile network is being expanded across the country. Efficient operation of these transmission installations is vital to environmental conservation.

Power consumption of the new technology 

The fifth generation of mobile communications includes concepts and technologies that allow such communications to become energy-efficient and resource-efficient. This potential springs from the fact that the signal transmission type allows for better use of the frequency spectrum (known as “spectral efficiency”). It also allows multiple antenna systems to work together better. So larger data volumes require less energy for transmission via radio and better use is made of available resources and capacity. A 5G radio cell is therefore able to supply considerably more users or even sensors. This means that with the same number of users and the same amount of data to be transmitted, the need to upgrade antenna sites can be reduced. A further advantage over previous generations of mobile communications is that 5G is the first to support direct energy-saving management. 

Further potential is created by the opportunity to replace previous systems from the second to fourth generations (GSM, UMTS, LTE), either in part or more extensively. If the mobile network operators active in Germany cooperate in the running of antenna sites, it may become possible to reduce existing redundant network capacity in locations where the network coverage is unchanged or improved. This would save both energy and raw materials. 

The new mobile communications transmitters themselves require significantly less power than their 4G predecessors. This is not however true of the system technology and data centres. It is likely that there will be a massive increase in the volume of data handled. Experts are therefore proceeding on the assumption that the energy requirements of data centres will also continue to rise. The key factor here is the cooling capacity of the servers. 

Research in environmental pollution 

The development and expansion of 5G, currently sharing the frequency range of 7 gigahertz with the previous mobile networks, offers the best potential here for getting rid of old inefficient technology and making mobile communications more environmentally friendly in the medium term thanks to new, more efficient networks. The research project entitled “Technology assessment of the change processes in the area of mobile communication infrastructures including end user devices and the resulting environmental pollution”, which the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM is conducting on behalf of the German Environment Agency, looks at how the energy and raw material requirements are developing regarding the new generation of mobile communications. In addition to the energy needs of the prospective mobile infrastructure, its raw material requirements are being analysed, in particular as regards critical raw materials such as gallium, germanium or indium. The project is expected to conclude at the end of 2021 with recommended measures for effectively reducing the energy and resource requirements of the mobile infrastructure. 

Finding uses for waste heat 

An important starting point is provided by a study by RWTH Aachen University. Scientists determined that both the constant use of data centres and the cooling process generate large volumes of low-temperature waste heat – in fact, according to the study, up to 8 billion kilowatt-hours will have been produced by 2025. There is great potential here for the years ahead because such low-temperature waste heat could be used as an energy source and, in conjunction with heat pumps and heat accumulators, put to work supplying heat for energy-efficient housing developments and urban districts. This would help protect the climate by replacing fossil fuels. However, this assumes integrated planning of the cooling systems of the data centres, the heat exchangers and heat distribution networks and the energy equipment for each building supplied. At the moment, such planning processes are still very rare, with only one percent of all data centres using waste heat extensively. Given the considerable energy-saving potential of such solutions and the rising need for energy in data centres, it is to be hoped that such cross-sectoral concepts between data centres and the properties in their respective vicinity requiring heat will become widespread. 

Thanks to intelligent control, power generation plants using renewable energy sources and mobile communications transmission installations that are in turn linked with industrial sites or urban districts can be networked in an energy-efficient manner. This could lead to direct and efficient use of renewable power and waste heat without any need for conversion. Thus, a cross-sectoral system is created with low CO2 emissions. Such integrated energy concepts can only spread widely if targeted information is available and suitable framework conditions are created for all involved. The creation of a mandatory requirement for municipal heat conduction planning is under discussion as a suitable instrument for delivering broad-based support for integrated concepts. 

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