While reaping the benefits of 5G telecom boom, three large real estate investment trusts (REITs) that are wireless communications infrastructure owners — American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA Communications — are also working to reduce their carbon footprints.
Although tower owners consume just a small fraction of the power telecom carriers and tech manufacturers do (see Sept. 9 and Sept. 14 eDigest stories), the three REITs have stepped up their green energy initiatives to help alleviate the power-hungry demands of 5G base stations, which can consume as much as three times more power than 4G and LTE equipment.
The REITs capitalized on this year’s 5G building boom, turning in stellar second-quarter 2021 results: American Tower, one of the world’s largest owners of wireless infrastructure, reported second quarter results that included revenue increasing 20.2 percent to $2.299 billion and net income increasing 66.8 percent to $748 million.
According to Crown Castle, the company owns, operates and leases more than 40,000 cell towers and 80,000 route miles of fiber-optic cable supporting small cells and other facilities. The REIT said it increased its expected 2021 growth 12 percent, with reported income from operations of $333 million in the second quarter — compared with $200 million for the second quarter of 2020.
SBA Communications reported a net income of $152.7 million or $1.37 per share, average funds from operations (AFFO) per share growth of 15.3 percent for the second quarter and revenue of $575.5 million for its second quarter.
The three REITs are as quick to boast of their environmental successes as their financial success. However, it is yet another large cell tower owner that claims to be the first wireless infrastructure company to become 100 percent carbon-neutral. According to Vertical Bridge, the company owns and master-leases more than 8,000 towers, which it said makes the company the largest private owner of towers in the United States.In June 2020, the Boca Raton, Florida-based Vertical company said that it was officially certified as carbon-neutral in accordance with The CarbonNeutral Protocol.
Last month, Vertical Bridge became part of DigitalBridge Group (for background, Digital Bridge was a company Colony Capital purchased in 2019, but now both Vertical Bridge and Colony Capital are part of DigitalBridge Group) — but the “bridged” company’s carbon-neutral green initiatives remain intact.
As part of Vertical Bridge’s carbon-lowering efforts, it is opting for more energy-efficient and environmentally safer technologies as it upgrades HVACs, aviation lighting systems (to LED lighting) and generators. It’s also guided field operations teams to be more efficient with travel route planning by completing multiple visits and inspections in a single trip rather than several.
Meanwhile, Houston-based Crown Castle, despite having the highest percentage among its peers of suburban and urban cellular towers and small cells — which tend to consume more energy — has a relatively limited carbon footprint. About 62 percent of Crown Castle’s towers are in the top 100 cities in the United States. Although its cell tower business is booming this year, Crown Castle said it believes its small-cell market will flourish. Typically, cell towers consume less energy than small cells, which consume little power individually but have a cumulative power consumption in urban areas.
According to Crown Castle’s environmental sustainability statement, “Our infrastructure and related assets, such as ground shelters, are primarily used to host our tenants’ assets and support their operations. While Crown Castle frequently contracts with utility companies to deliver electricity to our sites, the power is predominantly consumed by our tenants to operate their equipment, such as radios. Given that our assets are primarily U.S.-based, our operations are generally supported by a reliable power grid.”
The statement continues, “Where lighting beacons are mandated by law, we have transitioned 6,119, or nearly 50 percent, to efficient LED lighting to reduce energy consumption. In addition, all new vehicles in our service fleet are assessed for fuel efficiency, and our data center teams routinely evaluate the energy use of their equipment and make updates to improve efficiency. We also seek energy efficiency in our owned and leased offices, with 18 Energy Star-certified and seven LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified. For new office spaces, we make efficiency improvements a standard practice.”
Meanwhile, American Tower owns the most U.S. cell towers — about 42,000 — and also owns about 500 distributed antenna system (DAS) networks and 1,774 DAS nodes; 407 of these DAS nodes are in the United States.
According to American Tower’s environment statement, “Managing our environmental impact is an essential element of our value proposition to our tenants and our commitment to sustainability. By deploying the latest renewable energy technologies and advanced battery storage systems and reducing energy usage as much as practicable, we can offer our tenants a more stable, resilient and efficient platform for their equipment’s power requirements. In addition, with more than 214,000 sites worldwide, we are committed to expanding connectivity in a sustainable manner by working with our local communities to ensure protection of our surrounding land and ecosystems.”
American Tower also points to its more than 1,700 solar panels on the roof of its U.S. Tower division headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts, offsetting approximately 16 percent of the building’s usage annually, adding “While our targeted diesel reduction program is our most impactful use of resources and efforts in sustainable operations, we also sponsor other programs focused on reducing, reusing and recycling under our companywide Green @American Tower initiative. We believe that weaving sustainability into our culture is essential to our success and this starts where employees work every day. We do this by investing in renewables and other energy efficiencies in our offices around the world.”
In 2018, American Tower announced its commitment to planting a million trees across the United States over the next decade. “Our Million Trees initiative is a new and creative approach to philanthropic giving that helps support our mission to connect to the communities where our teams live and work,” a statement from American Tower reads. “To implement this program, we are partnering with American Forests, the nation’s oldest conservation organization. Thus far, American Tower and American Forests have planted 200,000 trees.”
Ranked third among the large U.S. wireless infrastructure REITs with more than 17,000 towers in service, SBA Communications stated that one of its core corporate goals is to “mitigate the environmental impact and carbon footprint.” However, SBA is one of many S&P 500 companies that do not disclose their carbon data to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).
Nevertheless, SBA has implemented various initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint and provide green solutions for its business, including stringent energy efficiency and recycling programs.
According to the Environment chapter of SBA Communications’ 2019 Sustainability Report, “As a leader in wireless communications infrastructure, SBA also strives to be a leader in corporate sustainability. We continuously look at ways to maximize the sustainability of our operations and reduce our environmental footprint across the markets in which we operate. Our neutral-host infrastructure assets have a relatively small geographic footprint, ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 square feet per tower site. They are built to host equipment from multiple tenants, thereby reducing the overlap and duplication of towers in our communities. We have developed sustainable energy solutions that reduce carbon emissions for our customers. We support post-disaster recovery efforts following hurricanes, such as the re-building of critical telecom networks and provisioning of emergency power.”
SBA said that its environmental measures include screening tower site locations that might be located in a wilderness or wildlife preserve, mitigating any potential effect on migratory birds and their habitats, and accelerating the replacement of all lighting systems on its towers from traditional incandescent and xenon models to new energy efficient LED lighting systems.
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.