The mobile revolution is empowering developing communities by enabling real-time communication and access to the internet, and the number of cell towers (base stations) is rapidly growing, especially in areas that are off-grid. In fact, in many areas of the developing world, mobile phones are so important that people purchase them before they have a place to charge them.
Most of the off-grid cell towers that service remote communities are powered by diesel generators, which can be expensive, unreliable, and dirty to run. But a different approach is powering these base stations with wind and solar power, and then developing 'micropower' or community power grids, which can then offer extended access to clean, reliable, and cheap electricity.
One such initiative is Green Power for Mobile, from GSMA, which was launched in 2008 with the intent of powering base stations through solar panels, wind power, or biofuels, decreasing the amount of diesel burned and reducing costs. At the time, only about 1500 stations were powered by renewable energy, and the initiative set a goal of powering 118,000 base stations with clean energy, which would save over 6 million gallons of diesel each year. Since then, an estimated 34,000 "Green Deployments" have been installed, with many more in currently in the works.
OMC Power, a renewable energy power company in India, has been making great progress towards both providing green power for cell towers, and then supplying surplus electricity to the surrounding communities. OMC currently has 11 "Micropower Plants" operating in India, which supply power to 40 off-grid cell towers and to some 150,000 people without access to the grid. These Micropower electricity plants allow businesses and individuals to power their mobile phones, lights, fans, and household appliances, increasing the quality of life in the community and helping to stimulate economic growth in surrounding areas.
With base stations acting as the "anchor" demand for electricity from micropower plants, it's not only possible to set up these types of renewable micropower and community power grids, but it may also make economic sense due to both the volatile nature of fuel prices and being able to meet local demands for electricity.
By increasing the number of mobile base stations powered by renewable energy, not only will less diesel fuel be burned, but more people in the developing world will have access to something we take for granted: a reliable source of electricity.
[h/t Sierra Club]