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Sending out the right signals on energy use

In the digital age, the signals of mass communication are travelling around us all the time.

With the ubiquity of transmission infrastructure, there is plenty of room to consider the potential of energy efficiency and renewables here. 

Luckily, UK researchers are very much on the case. 

Fine-tuning TV transmission

Energy transmissionDigital TV broadcasting could be set to make dramatic efficiency improvements thanks to work at the University of Bristol. Now, signals are often operating above the operational limit, which uses more energy than is necessary while providing no viewer benefit. 

The team's work suggests that signal strength and direction can be varied according to where and when it's actually being used, without compromising viewing. This is similar to how mobile phone signals work, and if taken up, could mean energy efficiency savings of 35 per cent. 

Like many energy innovations, the secret lies in being adaptive to what's actually happening, not energy-intensive speculation. But while it's clear that the production of signals can itself be made more sustainable, the transmission equipment itself could play a role. 

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Green towers could fuel communities

A Brunel University team has come up with a way to provide a very useful additional service from mobile phone towers in remote locations. 

Combining solar PV or wind power with hydrogen fuel cells at base stations could provide low-carbon energy for cut-off localities, such those in mountains or on islands. Using what are known as Regenerative Hydrogen Fuel Cells, or RHFCs, hydrogen is produced from water and stored on-site through renewables, ready to be delivered to the fuel cells when energy is needed.

Communicating the case against diesel

The researchers say that solar panels and a wind turbine situated halfway up the mast would generate enough energy to both power the mast and supply a community – cutting out the need for expensive and dirty diesel generators, which are often used as backup power. 

The scope for such developments is huge. A 2014 report from GSMA suggested that by 2020 there will be well over a million telecom towers in off-grid or 'bad grid' areas, and argued for conversation to greener alternatives to diesel. It cites potential $13-14billion annual savings and 40 million tonnes of carbon as the potential savings. 

Whether it's smarter signals or green technology at transmission stations – or, more probably, a bit of both – there are significant forces pushing our digital world towards better, cleaner choices. With more and more parts of the world getting connected, it really is the only way to go.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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