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The Greening of Cable

Sat, 07/31/2010 - 8:50pm
Brian Santo, Editor-in-Chief

Saving energy is one thing, but there has to be an economic payback, and money – some in the cable industry are calling that combination.

Rough estimates are that the cable industry is spending in excess of $1 billion a year on energy. Cable companies might be able to reduce their energy expenses by 10 percent, however, with only minimal effort. A cable company committed to far more than the minimum could cut its energy bill by more than 20 percent, by some accounts. How’s that for opex savings?

Carbon footprints take in more than just energy usage; the source of the energy, for example, can mean that two companies with the same energy consumption might have radically different carbon profiles. For example, hydroelectric has a lower overall carbon impact than coal power. The company buying hydro power would have a lower carbon imprint than the company buying coal power.

Reducing a company’s carbon imprint by more than 20 percent is well within the realm of possibility.

Exactly how, though? Answers are beginning to come. Companies like Cox Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Rogers Communications are exploring several avenues and are sharing their results.

They’re being aided by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, which is not only encouraging green practices, but is also actively employing them, all in the interest of establishing guidelines, business cases and best practices the entire industry can benefit from.

SCTE is installing a photovoltaic system...

CABLE CONSUMES
The three biggest energy expenditures are the transmission network itself and critical facilities, and a distant third is facilities and offices. A big chunk of that third category is vehicles (see Carbon Impact Study).

Headends and central offices, and the networks themselves, suck a lot of power.

“In 2008, Virgin Media was one of the top carbon emitters that was not a utility in the U.K. Why? Because of the energy used in their network,” said Paul Shmotolokha, president of Coppervale, a company that consults with communications companies on energy use. Coppervale did the energy audit for Virgin Media. Since then, Virgin has been actively reducing its carbon footprint.

There are multiple factors in the green equation. Conservation remains one of the weightiest of them. Simply not wasting power can be fairly simple once a company identifies and commits to practices that reduce wasting energy, such as turning off lights where not needed or sealing off unused rooms with outside windows, which are likely to greenhouse when it’s hot and sunny and leak heat when it’s cold.

“There have been tremendous improvements in lighting in just the last three years,” Shmotolokha said. “And not just because of LEDs. It’s the control systems, the fluorescent tubes – everything. Lighting is the quickest and easiest payback – it’s a no-brainer.”

“We’ve got a list; it’s forty or fifty items,” said Jay Rolls, senior vice president of technology development at Cox. The list covers everything from office energy management to fleet management to looking for any energy savings possible in the construction of its new data center in Arizona. “What I’ve learned is that not only can you get payback, but with some things, you can get payback within a year. That’s a beautiful thing from a budget standpoint,” he said.

That’s all fairly straightforward, but the greening of the network itself is still in the initial stages.

Switching and routing equipment, including CMTSs, can consume a lot of energy (and generate a lot of heat), as can servers in data centers and server farms, including VOD libraries.

Energy consumption is being increased as companies move to switched digital video. Taking advantage of the channel-bonding capability can also increase energy consumption in D3 equipment because multiple tuners are now drawing power.

Carbon Impact Study

SET-TOP DRAW
Don’t forget the set-tops. While the energy drawn gets charged against the accounts of subscribers, the vast majority of boxes are still owned by the service provider. Older-model HD DVRs can draw about 25 watts of power, while some newer models draw as little as 3W, Shmotolokha noted.

Shmotolokha said one European client insisted it would not buy set-tops that did not have a standby mode, “and the vendor community responded to that,” he said.

While companies like Cisco and Arris and Juniper are trying to figure out how to minimize power consumption and maximize energy efficiency in switching systems, the big struggle is figuring out how to draw off the tremendous amounts of heat these systems generate in headends and central offices.

Power generation is another major variable – employing photovoltaics (PV), wind energy or geothermal energy to offset what you might otherwise pull from the grid.

Here the SCTE is putting its money where its mouth is, or – as SCTE President and CEO Mark Dzuban puts it – “we’re eating our own dog food.” The organization is installing a 12 kW PV system to power its headquarters in Exton, Pa. The SCTE expects to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony later this month for the system, which will help power its IT systems, including its website.

“All the learning that comes out of that – how do you finance and build something like that – that will all go into a presentation,” Dzuban said.

The problem is that photovoltaic power is still very expensive and still not very efficient, despite years of gradual improvement.

The federal tax incentive is available nationwide. “But if you only have federal incentives, the best you can do is single green,” said John Hewitt, vice president of cable sales at Alpha Technologies. Double green is possible only in those six states that currently have additional incentives for PV projects.

That list includes Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon. The members on that list are likely to change from year to year.

“Does PV work? Yes,” Dzuban said, referring to some megawatt systems Cox Communications installed at some of its Arizona facilities last year. “Cox is running some big systems. Now how do you go from conceptual to the actual nuts and bolts of doing it?”

Rogers, he noted, is using geothermal energy – not for cooling, but for heating.

The SCTE will help compile and share information from Cox, and from Rogers, and from Comcast and Time Warner and others, which it plans to start publishing soon, with the expectation that the volume of what gets published will increase as the industry gains more experience. Dzuban promised a set of specifications and best practices in 2011.

HEADEND LOADS
As easy as it is to find double-green opportunities in offices, it’s hard to eke big improvements in power consumption or in power efficiency in critical facilities such as headends, central offices and hubs.

That said, there might be some areas to save in. Just as there are peak hours for energy usage, there are peak hours for network usage.

Communications service providers have large data centers with multiple servers. Maybe they can be managed so that they don’t all have to be up and running, suggested Derek DiGiacomo, director of information services at the SCTE.

“Can devices have sleep modes? Do all servers have to be on at all times? Can they be brought back on quickly? I’ve seen models that show you might get a 50 percent reduction in energy usage simply by using cycling software,” DiGiacomo said.

In general, the equipment draws what it draws. Manufacturers can diminish the sizes of their systems, but while power efficiency might be improved somewhat, the real progress and advantages tend to be in density.

Meanwhile, products from different manufacturers tend to be similar in terms of their energy demands. That said, there are some instances where the differences are actually quite stark.

As mentioned above, switching equipment can draw a lot of power. Alpha powers softswitches from both Nortel and Cedar Point Communications. “Nortel draws double the power,” Hewitt observed.

The outside plant is where other savings might be achieved.

For years, the typical amplifier in use by the cable industry was a 15-amp model. But in recent years, as network architectures evolved and nodes became smaller, the 15-amp product is simply much bigger than necessary.

On average, 80 percent of an HFC network operates at fewer than 10 amps, Hewitt said, yet operators out of habit tend to replace amplifiers with the traditional 15A model, typically operated at their “sweet spot” at about 12A – still more than necessary. They just end up generating heat, he said. “We’re starting to see 50 percent of the network not matching the size of the requirement.” Alpha is now making 3A, 6A, 10A and 15A models “so that when it comes time to replace an amp, you can size it appropriately.”

Is it worth it to swap one piece of equipment for another immediately, be it a switch, a set-top or an amp? Probably not. But if you’re buying new equipment, either for an initial deployment or to replace a system at the end of its normal lifecycle, in addition to looking at features, factoring in the relative power consumption of the competing products is clearly advisable.

Another option is to just eliminate the problem by eliminating components that draw power – go fiber deep, or put in a passive optical network (PON). While either option will save on power, no question, Shmotolokha said the expense of the deployment cannot be justified by the power savings alone.

The key is to start by picking specific goals. Time Warner Cable, for example, decided to start by concentrating on getting efficiencies in its fleet and by reducing its use of paper. (Reusing and recycling paper doesn’t affect energy consumption directly, but it does diminish one’s carbon footprint.)

Long term, Coppervale recommends a plan (and Coppervale can help companies develop such plans) that take into account:

• The network
• Critical facilities
• Offices
• Carbon baselining (doing a carbon audit, which becomes a baseline for a comparison to measure improvement)
• Internal programs (getting employee buy-in)

“Do all five of those, and communicate that to your subscribers, and you can really improve your brand with your customers. And let’s face it,” Shmotolokha said, “some cable companies have a bad image in some markets. This is an opportunity to improve a bad image.”

In the future, even more variables could be introduced to the equation.

First and foremost, energy prices are only going to go up. Peak oil production is about 85 million barrels a day, and one of the factors that drove gas up to $4 a gallon a few years ago was that worldwide demand was at about 84 million barrels a day, Shmotolokha explained.

Now, in a recession that is still being felt the world over, demand is still about 80 million barrels a day. Once world economies perk up again, so will demand for oil (and other forms of energy), and that will only serve to drive costs up again.

FUTURE ENERGY
“Say you’re a small, $100 million company, and energy prices go up and you end up spending another 5 percent or 10 percent on energy,” Shmotolokha said. “That’s $5 million to $10 million a year – that’s a pretty big line item increase.”

There’s growing interest in the notion of carbon taxes, an additional fee levied on companies that could go up or down based on their carbon footprints. And as noted above, given that communications networks are huge users of power, a carbon tax could be a big hit for communications service providers.

Utilities are also looking at their own version of tiered pricing, based on the nowfamiliar concept of peak usage. “You can see the grid change between 5:30 and 6:30 as electric ovens come on,” Hewitt observed.

It might take five or 10 years, but utilities are going to want to charge more for power consumed during peak periods, an inducement for people to change their behaviors, opting to draw power at other times when the option is available, or, as Hewitt put it, “so maybe you don’t bake a cake at 6:00.”

That’s residential. Business hours are business hours, and that’s unlikely to change. Under those circumstances, installing renewable energy becomes more salient. “A PV system can offset consumption at peak times,” Hewitt said.

This dovetails directly with the Smart Grid approach, but a convergence of communications and utilities interests just isn’t happening yet. “It makes sense for a power company to monitor usage, and MSOs have a high-bandwidth pipe into the house. A meter should just have an Ethernet cable in the back so you can send back the data. You could do it for practically free at this point,” Hewitt said. “I think Smart Grid is going to be an important part of the future.”

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