Can 5G Be a Model for Clean Energy Power?
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Can 5G Be a Model for Clean Energy Power?

By Andy Marsh, CEO, Plug Power

Major wireless carriers and device manufacturers are hanging their hats on the fact that 5G will power applications of the future. Without a doubt, 5G network sensors will make their way into cars, buses, and other forms of autonomous transportation -- making them “smarter” and more connected, but also more vulnerable to widespread and potentially catastrophic outages. Unlike past infrastructure, wireless carriers have the opportunity to build 5G infrastructure around clean, renewable, and reliable energy sources. Current models for backup power can be translated to new 5G infrastructure, creating a newer, more sustainable method of powering tomorrow’s technology.

"At its core, a 5G network will provide better experiences, including everything from lower latency to less buffering to faster response times"

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, 5G is similar to the 3G and 4G mobile networks of today, but it takes the network’s speed and reliability to an entirely new level that will open doors to a connected future that has never been possible before. As Sandra Rivera, SVP and GM of the Network Platforms Group at Intel explained in her interview with Forbes, “5G is really the true convergence of computing and communications and the idea that everything that can and should be connected will be. I tend to think of 5G as having both revolutionary and evolutionary elements to it.” And, as we enter a period when internet connected devices are expected to reach 20 billion by 2020, it’s critical that as consumers, we think about both the opportunities and the challenges a 5G-run society poses.

At its core, a 5G network will provide better experiences, including everything from lower latency to less buffering to faster response times. And these benefits can, and will, surface in all facets of daily life, whether you’re playing a game online, collaborating with a co-worker across the globe, or taking an Autonomous Vehicle (AV) across the city to dinner. As you might imagine, a fully connected society will require even more energy consumption than today’s levels, which demands sustainable solutions to the fossil fuels we’re so reliant on today (for myriad reasons including climate change and sheer economics).

Given the sheer amount of connected devices relying on the 5G network, communications providers will be even more reliant on backup power to ensure that when an outage -- from natural disasters or other causes -- occurs, their systems are equipped with the power needed to keep the essential services running. Today, carriers are using a number of different types of backup power, including batteries, combustion generators, hydrogen fuel cells, and even solar and wind at off-grid locations. At Plug Power, we’re providing hydrogen fuel cells for backup power to communications providers including AT&T, Southern Linc, Sprint, and Verizon to ensure their networks keep working even when utility power is down. Major providers such as these are turning to HFCs not only because they are a sustainable alternative, but because they also have a smaller footprint than diesel-powered combustion generators, and reduce the maintenance requirements of the network. A proven higher reliability and performance in the face of natural disasters and intelligent remote management all contribute to make fuel cells an ideal solution for increasingly critical 5G deployments.

Now, let’s look to a 5G future, where taxi autonomous vehicles are driving passengers around New York City. Each vehicle is communicating with others on the road and billions of other devices -- that all have smart technologies backing them up -- to share information and ensure safe delivery of the rider. What happens when that vehicle, and all other devices in the city lose power, disconnecting access to the network? A situation like this could be catastrophic, resulting in the loss of traffic lights and navigational guidance, causing traffic jams and accidents. In a scenario like that, having reliable backup power is as essential as we consider utility grid power today. Using clean energy instead of fossil fuels will reduce the environmental impact of 5G connectivity, helping many countries achieve energy independence while still remaining technologically advanced.

While we’re still very much in the exploratory stages of vehicle automation and 5G networks, much of the work that will help ensure that safety and success of these innovations is being done at the ground level today, and can be applied to future technology. As Rivera explained it, “The revolutionary part [of 5G] is that you’re bringing the computer much closer to the end point – the point of data creation or data consumption.” And as we look to the future, we must be sure that we’re thinking about how to connect those dots in a safe and sustainable way so that we’re prepared, regardless of the scenario at hand.

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