by Anthony Watts
WUWT readers of course have heard about the Met Office and their giant new supercomputer called “deep black” that they use for climate simulation and short term forecasts.
Not to be outdone, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO has commissioned a new supercomputer project of their own: The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) shown in artist rendering below.
In the initial press release they state the location and purpose:
January 23, 2007
BOULDER—The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and its managing organization, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), announced today that they will form a partnership with the University of Wyoming, the State of Wyoming, and the University of Colorado at Boulder to build a new supercomputing data center for scientific research in Cheyenne. The center will house some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers in order to advance understanding of climate, weather, and other Earth and atmospheric processes.
The center’s supercomputers, which will be upgraded regularly, will initially achieve speeds of hundreds of teraflops (trillion floating-point operations per second).
The Met Office wrote in their initial press release:
By 2011, the total system is anticipated to have a total peak performance approaching 1 PetaFlop — equivalent to over 100,000 PCs and over 30 times more powerful than what is in place today.
We found out later that the Met Office supercomputer would have an electrical power consumption of 1.2 megawatts.
So with that it mind, we’d expect the new NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) to have some similar sort of power consumption. Right?
On the masthead of the NWSC page they say they are all about energy efficiency.
The NWSC project encompasses the design and construction of a world class center for high performance scientific computing in the atmospheric and related geosciences. Consistent with its mission, the facility will be a leader in energy efficiency, incorporating the newest and most efficient designs and technologies available. The center will provide new space to enable the advancement of scientific knowledge, education, and service through high-performance computing.
And on the right sidebar:
Focus on Sustainability
Maximum energy efficiency, LEED certification, and achievement of the smallest possible carbon footprint are all goals of the NWSC project. In the coming weeks and months, check this section of the site for updates on project sustainability efforts and outcomes.
That’s great, I’m all for sustainability and energy efficiency, even the “smallest possible carbon footprint” doesn’t sound too bad. Surely it will be more energy efficient and “greener” than the Met Office Supercomputer, right?
There’s an interesting unanswered question though. Why put this new facility in Wyoming rather than “green” Colorado? Isn’t Boulder, where NCAR is headquartered, the greenest of Colorado cities, and in the US top five too?
In the initial press release announcing the project, there’s this bit of political feel good prose:
“Having an NCAR supercomputing facility in Wyoming will be transformative for the University of Wyoming, will represent a significant step forward in the state’s economic development, and will provide exceptional opportunities for NCAR to make positive contributions to the educational infrastructure of an entire state,” says William Gern, the university’s vice president for research and economic development.
Gosh, what an opportunity for Wyoming. But why give the opportunity away? Colorado doesn’t want this opportunity? None of the politicians in Colorado want to be able to say to their constituents that they brought “economic development” and “positive contributions to the educational infrastructure of an entire state”? That doesn’t seem right.
The answer may very well lie in economics, but not the kind they mention in feel good press releases.
You see as we know from supercomputers, they need a lot of energy to operate. And because they operate in enclosed spaces, a lot of energy to keep them cooled so they don’t burn up from the waste heat they generate.
For all their sophistication, without power for operation and cooling, a supercomputer is just dead weight and space.
Electricity is king.
Interestingly, in the press releases and web pages, NCAR provides no answers (at least none that were easy to find) to how much electricity the new supercomputer might use for operation and cooling. They also provide no explanation as to why Colorado let this opportunity go to another state. I had to dig into NCAR’s interoffice staff notes to find the answer.
The answer is: electricity.
Measuring 108,000 square feet in total with 15,000-20,000 square feet of raised floor, it will be built for 8 megawatts of power, with 4-5 megawatts for computing and 3-4 for cooling.
8 megawatts! Yowza.
It’s really about economics. Electricity is getting expensive, and likely to be more expensive in the future. Candidate Obama said that under his leadership, “electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket“. Clearly NCAR is planning for a more expensive energy future.
In the interoffice staff notes, NCAR outlines its decision logic.
NCAR considered partnerships for the data center with a number of organizations along the Front Range, giving CU-Boulder and the University of Wyoming particularly close scrutiny. NCAR also looked into leasing space and retrofitting an existing data center.
With support from NSF and the UCAR Board of Trustees, NCAR chose to locate the center in Wyoming after a rigorous evaluation, concluding that this partnership would facilitate getting the greatest computing capability for the regional and national scientific community at the earliest possible time.
“The Wyoming offer provides more computing power, sooner, and at lower cost,” Tim explained during an all-staff town hall meeting on January 31. “We’ve secured the future of NCAR’s role in leadership computing.”
The Wyoming offer consists of a 24-acre “shovel-ready” site for construction in the North Range Business Park in Cheyenne near the intersection of I-80 and I-25, along with physical infra- structure for fiber optics and guaranteed power transmission of 24 megawatts. The University of Wyoming will provide $20 million in endowment funds for construction, as well as $1 million annually for operations. NCAR will utilize the State of Wyoming’s bond program to fund construction, with the state treasurer purchasing bonds that will be paid off by NCAR.
Although CU-Boulder’s offer would have given the new center greater proximity to other NCAR facilities, it would have left NCAR with a mortgage of $50 million rather than $40 million and less long-term financial savings. The Cheyenne site offers cheaper construction costs and lends itself to future expansion. It also brings a transformative partnership to a state that has traditionally lacked opportunities in technology and research.
Indeed according to the latest figures from the Energy Information Adminsitration and Department of Energy (EIA/DOE) electricity is significantly cheaper in Wyoming.
So besides the fact that NCAR abandoned “green” Colorado for it’s cheaper electricity rates and bond program, what’s the “dirty little secret?
Coal, the “dirtiest of fuels”, some say.
According to Sourcewatch, Wyoming is quite something when it comes to coal. Emphasis mine.
Wyoming is the nation’s highest coal producer, with over 400 million tons of coal produced in the state each year. In 2006, Wyoming’s coal production accounted for almost 40% of the nation’s coal. Currently Wyoming coal comes from four of the State’s ten major coal fields. The Powder River Coal Field has the largest production in the world – in 2007, it produced over 436 million short tons.
Wyoming coal is shipped to 35 other states. The coal is highly desirable because of its low sulfur levels. On average Wyoming coal contains 0.35 percent sulfur by weight, compared with 1.59 percent for Kentucky coal and 3 to 5 percent for other eastern coals. Although Wyoming coal may have less sulfur, it also a lower “heat rate” or fewer Btu’s of energy. On average Wyoming coal has 8600 Btu’s of energy per pound, while Eastern coal has heat rates of over 12,000 Btu’s per pound, meaning that plants have to burn 50 percent more Wyoming coal to equal the power output from Eastern coal.
Coal-fired power plants produce almost 95% of the electricity generated in Wyoming. Wyoming’s average retail price of electricity is 5.27 cents per kilowatt hour, the 2nd lowest rate in the nation
It’s so bad, that Wyoming’s coal plants earned the coveted “Coal Swarm” badge on that page.
But not to worry, NCAR has a plan to “clean up” that dirty coal use to power their supercomputer climate modeling system.
Again from the interoffice staff notes
The new center will be the first NCAR facility to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for its design, construction, and operation. Measuring 108,000 square feet in total with 15,000-20,000 square feet of raised floor, it will be built for 8 megawatts of power, with 4-5 megawatts for computing and 3-4 for cooling. The power will be generated primarily from “clean” coal (coal that has been chemically scrubbed to reduce emissions of harmful pollutants) via Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power. NCAR is also aggressively working to secure the provision of alternative energy (wind and solar) for the facility, hoping to attain an initial level of 10%.
“We’re going to push for environmentally friendly solutions,” Tim says.
Clean Coal? Hmmm. NASA GISS’ Dr. Jim Hansen says Clean Coal is a decade away:
James Hansen, one of the world’s best-known global warming researchers and a recent vocal advocate of proposed coal plants, says clean coal technology used on a full-scale coal-fired plant could be at least a decade away. He expressed the sentiment in a media briefing organized by clean energy group RE-AMP, arguing against a proposed coal plant in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Hansen also said that:
“The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death. When I testified against the proposed Kingsnorth power plant, I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsible for the extermination of about 400 species – its proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm.”
Don’t worry, the University of Wyoming in Cheyenne, where the new NCAR supercomputing center will be, is already on top of the situation. This is from their press release May 26th, 2008:
The University of Wyoming is ready to research clean coal and wants proposals from both academic and industry organizations. With the help of the Wyoming state government, they’ve arranged for up to $4.5 million in research funds — which can be matched by non-state funds.
And, Wyoming already has their hand out to Presdient Obama:
Colorado, Utah, Wyoming Seek Clean Coal Funding
DENVER (AP) ―
The governors of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are asking President Barack Obama to fund the development of clean-coal technologies in the West.
Yup, clean coal will power that new NCAR supercomputer any day now, and we’ll be paying for it.
In the meantime:
I’m sure NCAR will let us know how those wind turbines work out for that other 10% of the power.
h/t to Steve Goddard in comments