South African tech companies going green while fighting load-shedding

Many of South Africa’s major technology and telecom companies have plans to make their operations more environmentally friendly while increasing their resilience against load-shedding.

While the corporate world is no newcomer to environmental sustainability programmes, several companies are also getting on board with the global drive for cleaner energy sources.

In South Africa, the prevalence of load-shedding made this a practical necessity for some companies and not merely an ethical consideration.

With solar energy now among the cheapest forms of electricity generation and fuel prices at record levels, some of the best solutions for cutting costs also happen to be the greener choices.

We asked South Africa’s largest telecoms and technology companies for more details on their green initiatives and efforts to curb load-shedding’s impact on their businesses.


Vodacom

A Vodacom spokesperson said the operator’s biggest environmental impact and source of indirect emissions was its electricity consumption.

That is why it is finalising purchase agreements with private renewable power producers.

“Vodacom South Africa is moving into the pilot phase with Eskom for a solution to source 100% of its electricity demand for its South African operations from renewable independent power producers (IPPs),” the spokesperson said.

“The success of the pilot will not only provide Vodacom with renewable power but also provide a blueprint for other South African corporates to replicate — allowing more companies to add capacity to the grid and help solve the country’s energy crisis.”

This initiative will see Vodacom meet its 2025 commitment to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources across all its operations.

As part of its switch to renewables, roofs and carports at its Midrand campus in Gauteng are being fitted with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.

“This solution will allow Vodacom’s headquarters (HQ) to generate around 10.8 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of its own clean power every year, which is roughly 21% of the HQ’s power consumption,” Vodacom said.

The target for phase one of the solar PV project is set for completion by March 2023.

Vodacom said it worked with conservation agencies to better understand the role of technology in minimising biodiversity loss.

“While the impact of our activities on biodiversity is relatively low, we aim to understand whether the activities of our value chain contribute to the loss of biodiversity in any way,” the spokesperson stated.

To combat load-shedding, Vodacom has deployed generators and spent around R2 billion on batteries at many of its base stations over the past two years.

However, stage 4 load-shedding has affected its ability to fully recharge tower batteries.

This causes coverage in certain areas around South Africa to be intermittent during higher stages of power cuts.


MTN

MTN aims to achieve a 50% emission reduction by 2030 but believes it might be able to bring this forward to 2025 through various initiatives.

MTN South Africa corporate affairs executive Jacqui O’Sullivan said the company was undertaking several green initiatives.

Among these, the operator plans to move its headquarters and Fairland datacentre off-grid by the end of 2023.

It aims to achieve this through a combination of Combined Cooling Heat and Power (CCHP) technology, rooftop solar systems, a concentrated solar plant, and efficient lighting replacements.

“Additionally, facilities in Centurion and Gqeberha are also targeted for large-scale solar deployments with battery energy storage solutions within 2023/2024,” O’Sullivan said.

Like Vodacom, MTN is also in discussions with several private power producers on procuring electricity from renewable sources.

“The plans are well advanced to procure energy from IPPs using renewable sources, and we are confident we can conclude some agreements by the end of 2022 to early 2023,” said O’Sullivan.

MTN has installed 457 inverter air conditioners at its base stations in 2022, reducing energy consumption by roughly 33% per month per base station.

In addition, O’Sullivan said MTN used “smart features” on its radio network, switching off certain equipment during non-peak periods to save energy without impacting services.

“Any new deployments of air conditioners, UPSes, and generators will always be focused on efficiency,” O’Sullivan said.

In its fight against load-shedding, MTN has replaced close to 3,800 batteries at key sites, as continuous load-shedding had severely degraded them.

O’Sullivan said MTN would roll out a further 3,700 before the end of the year.


Telkom

Telkom told MyBroadband it had adopted a holistic approach to mitigating climate change, intending to be carbon neutral by 2035 and produce net-zero emissions by 2040.

“We have several inflight projects that translate our intention-in-action,” Telkom said.

In the current financial year, Telkom has prioritised the following green initiatives:

  • Total building optimisation, including air conditioning and air-flow optimisation
  • Efficient water heating and water efficiency and harvesting
  • Power factor correction
  • Battery technologies and smart metering
  • Lighting and sensors
  • Solar Photovoltaic (PV) energy plant commissioning in Telkom Park and Bellville Complex

The operator said it had many properties at different stages of implementation, and once the projects were complete, it would be able to quantify the impact of these measures.

Telkom said it has business continuity plans to mitigate against the severe effects of prolonged load-shedding.

“We have invested in alternative energy for most of our sites, including the use of standby generators,” a spokesperson for the company stated.

“Telkom is also acutely aware that its products and services produce high volumes of e-waste.”

In the past financial year, Telkom said it recycled 1,800 tonnes of e-waste.

One of the initiatives that supports this programme is the Thembani Project, in partnership with Sindawonye Recycling.

“Operating in the rural town of Bedford, Eastern Cape, the Thembani Project successfully recycles scrap fibre optic cable generated by Telkom — demonstrating that small towns can be commercially viable for large industries,” Telkom said.

“This is more than an environmentally sound recycling solution; it’s also a social development programme.”

“Since launching in 2004, many families have been positively affected by the project through employment opportunities. Aside from jobs directly related to the recycling project, it has also given rise to other viable businesses,” Telkom stated.


Cell C

Cell C chief operations officer André Ittman said the operator’s transition from physical to virtual Radio Access Network (RAN) would reduce its overall carbon footprint.

The company has also introduced initiatives that are a “step-change” to its environmental impact.

“We recently partnered with a services provider in the environmental and sustainable food sources space as a start to our external green initiatives,” said Ittman.

He said that small changes could help make a big impact.

Regarding load-shedding, Ittman said Cell C had generators at its premises and various base station sites to curb the impact of rotational power cuts.

He said operational expenditure on running this equipment has increased with the recent diesel price fluctuations.

Cell C


Others

The other major mobile network operator in South Africa — Rain — did not provide feedback by the time of publication.

MyBroadband also reached out to major technology firms in other industries to hear more about their green initiatives.

Mustek, one of South Africa’s biggest technology equipment distributors, and Alviva Holdings — which owns several of South Africa’s biggest technology companies — did not respond to feedback by the time of publication.

EOH Holdings told MyBroadband it was not available to participate in this piece.

Liquid Intelligent Technologies, another major telecoms provider, was also unable to provide comment to our queries but directed MyBroadband to one of its subsidiaries, data centre operator Africa Data Centres (ADC), instead.

ADC is currently developing a 10MW solar PV power plant for its Cape Town campus in South Africa in collaboration with sister company Distributed Power Technologies (DPT).

DPT will be using its energy-as-a-service model which will not require ADC to provide finance or capex over a 20-year power purchase agreement.

The project is undergoing a competitive bidding process for the engineering, procurement and construction contracts. Financial close is also anticipated within the next few months.

Construction on the project is expected to start around April 2023 and take between six to nine months.


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South African tech companies going green while fighting load-shedding