Energy savings: Is 5G a sustainability driver or a power glutton?

16 October 2023 8 min. read
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5G is regarded by many as an important stimulus that will drive digitalization. But what does the new standard mean for the environment? Can the upcoming 5G era shape a more sustainable future, or will the technology prove to be a stumbling block to the global quest for a sustainable future? Christian Maasem and Shivam Gupta from Detecon share their vision.

The new fifth-generation mobile communications standard has been hailed as one of the most promising technologies of the present day. A flexible, robust, and easily scalable networking technology with a wide range of application scenarios, 5G is an important stimulus that will drive digitalization.

But what impact will 5G’s adoption have on our environment? With climate change a global issue, the impact of 5G on sustainable development is a subject of heated debate.

Energy savings: Is 5G a sustainability driver or a power glutton?

A representative survey by the digital association Bitkom supports the assumption that digitalization of industry offers huge potential for reducing CO2 emissions. Its results indicate that the accelerated use of digital technologies could prevent the release of as much as 64 million tons of CO2 in Germany alone by 2030, 17 per cent of the total CO2 savings by 2030 stipulated in the climate targets.

In terms of these highly efficient and automated work processes using digital technologies, 5G acts as an enabler for the transformation to Industry 4.0.

More data = more emissions?

5G offers more than just high data transmission rates; it also uses energy much more efficiently than its predecessors. A study by STL Partners concludes that a 5G mobile site requires only about 15 per cent of the energy consumed by a 4G mobile site for transmission of the same amount of data, so a faster transition to 5G could save around 0.5 billion tons of CO2 worldwide by 2030. This equates to a reduction of nearly 80 per cent in carbon emissions and the lowering of operating costs by almost a third from the use of 5G technology.

A study by the University of Zurich also concludes that the 5G network will produce around 85 per cent lower emissions per unit of data transported in 2030 than today’s mobile network.

Since more than 100 5G networks have been launched worldwide in the meantime, the energy savings are enormous. Even if the volumes of transmitted data increase sharply, mobile network operators and telecommunications companies could well succeed in reducing power consumption and the related CO2 emissions.

A word of caution, however – the figures refer solely to the direct potential of the technology. The opportunities and effects related to its use are of far greater relevance. Indirectly, they can have an even more powerful impact on aspects of sustainability, known as “ICT for Green”.

Sustainable activity with the aid of 5G

5G technology and its use as an ecosystem have the potential to improve the sustainability of business processes in multiple ways. The fields of application are manifold. From development and production to logistics and sales — application opportunities in almost every sector are myriad.

Increased efficiency through automation
5G networks can aid in heightening the effectiveness and efficiency of work processes by supporting applications facilitating more extensive automation or improved transparency on the shop floor. In turn, companies become capable of scaling their processes more easily, adapting more quickly to changing conditions, and reducing operating costs thanks to decreased energy consumption.

Moreover, 5G can take over management of a variety of use cases and, in some cases, the functions of several previous systems, which would reduce CO2 emissions both directly and indirectly.

Smart cities and smart buildings
Forty per cent of the world’s energy consumption is used for heating, lighting, cooling, and other processes in buildings. Interconnectivity and automation of city infrastructures, including traffic management, power supply, building management, and waste disposal, become possible thanks to 5G networks. Resources can be used more efficiently and emissions reduced further.

Smart buildings equipped with 5G networks are also able to save energy and cut back carbon emissions. One practical example of this is the Empire State Building in New York. Sensors and meters that can measure and optimize energy consumption have been installed in the structure. Using the input from these automated meters and sensors for the control of the systems has lowered energy costs by nearly 40 per cent and diminished the building’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100,000 tons within a year.

Mobility is another sector in which 5G networks can be a source of improved sustainability. The potential to lower carbon emissions by the interconnectivity of vehicles with their surroundings (other vehicles, infrastructure, pedestrians, etc.), which would limit the amount of braking and acceleration, is estimated at 15 to 20 per cent.

Optimized customer experience
Devices connected by 5G can use VR and AR technologies that do not require any physical products at all to create corporate marketing initiatives featuring a more immersive experience. The carbon footprint from the production and distribution of promotional products can be pared back.

Integration of renewable energies
5G technology can offer access to prompt information on energy consumption patterns and renewable energy integration for green operations. Dependence on fossil fuels and carbon emissions associated with energy consumption can be limited. According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the targeted and smart use of renewable energy can slash carbon emissions by up to 70 per cent.

Smart logistics
Using 5G, companies can track and monitor their supply chains in real time; greater transparency reduces waste and enables early response to disruptions as well as other benefits. For example, sensors can monitor temperature, humidity, and other ambient conditions during transport and ensure the optimal delivery of products. IoT-enabled supply chain management systems can trim inventory by up to 30 per cent and increase supply chain efficiency by as much as 50 per cent.

Predictive maintenance
Equipment and machinery can also be monitored in real time with the help of 5G, lessening downtime and the need for costly repairs. Energy consumption for equipment repairs and parts replacements also falls; predictive maintenance can lower energy consumption by up to 10 per cent, cut maintenance costs by as much as 30 per cent, and increase system availability by up to 20 per cent.

Supplier management
5G helps companies to track supplier performance commitments more precisely along the supply chain, mitigating the risk of unethical practices or unsustainable activities. For instance, companies using hyper-connected systems can ensure that their suppliers comply with sustainability standards, which is one means of reducing carbon emissions associated with unsustainable supply chain practices.

According to CDP reports, supplier management initiatives can bring down carbon emissions by perhaps 1.5 million metric tons annually.

Circular economy
5G technology can enable companies to adopt circular economy principles in the supply chain, diminishing the need for new resource extraction and waste. For instance, companies can use interconnected systems to track and manage the return and reuse of products and to lower carbon emissions associated with waste and the extraction of new resources.

A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation determines that circular economy principles can lessen carbon emissions by up to 9.3 billion metric tons annually.

Sustainability also means competitiveness

These are just a few examples of how companies can act more sustainably when using 5G. The new mobile communications standard is the foundation for greater transparency and more comprehensive automation aimed at heightening the efficiency of existing processes and merging into one the functions of multiple systems that would otherwise be operated in parallel.

Another advantage of 5G is the acceleration of the testing and production startup of new use cases with the concomitant early benefits from the exploitation of even more potential savings from digitalization and data-driven hyperconnectivity.

About the authors: Christian Maasem is Partner at Detecon and Head of the Hyperconnectivity practice. Shivam Gupta is Consultant at Detecon and an expert in sustainable digitalization.