NCAR's NWSC: Scientific Data Center Highlights the Efficiency-vs-Sustainability Discussion

The NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Wyoming "provides advanced computing services to scientists studying a broad range of disciplines, including weather, climate, oceanography, air pollution, space weather, computational science, energy production, and carbon sequestration. It also houses a landmark data storage and archival facility that will hold, among other scientific data, unique historical climate records." It has also become of the focus our largest Twitter discussion of the 2013.

We first noted the NWSC in our post tracking of ultra-efficient mega data centers. This generating responses about the source of the facility's energy. The issue of "is energy effiecincy inherently green" is a common on this site; the NWSC's role in climate science makes it particularly relevant.

We started out reporting that the NWSC is designed to operate at a PUE of less than 1.1. This makes it, to our knowledge, the most energy-efficient supercomputer facility. Features include "…Wyoming's climatology, which allows for natural cooling during 96% of the year…Water consumption at the NWSC will be reduced by about 4.2 million gallons per year by recycling water, and by using innovative technology and high efficiency fixtures. The NWSC will also rely on daylighting to reduce energy consumption. Waste heat is recycled throughout the building, to heat the office spaces and melt ice and snow on exterior walkways in the winter."

The NWSC's many sustainability features won it the Uptime Institute's 2013 Green Enterprise IT Award in the Facility Design-Implementation category.

The relative GHG footpoint of an ICT facility is a function of both its efficiency and its generation source. A member of the global Green ICT community asserted that the NWSC is powered by coal-generated electricity, negating the value of PUE.

NCAR says, "NWSC will run on at least 10% renewable energy from wind, twice the current national average", but another government agency reports, "In 2011, 86 percent of net electricity generation in the State came from coal and 13 percent came from renewable energy resources, primarily wind." This makes it seem that NWSC's 10% from renewables is not much of a commitment and the other 90% might well cancel out much of the GHG reduction from the low PUE.

The situation is more subtle, though. Sources tell tell me that the 10% refers to a direct supply from Duke Energy's Happy Jack windpower project. If we assume that 13% of the remaining 90% is also from renewabale sources, than this would put total renewables higher at ~22%. That still appears to leave a twenty-first century endeavor contributing to climate science largely powered by a GHG-intensive legacy fuel source. I'm confident NCAR can improve on this.

Is the tension between climate science and Green ICT just a product of the NWSC? Of course not - climate science needs supercomputing and supercomputing needs a lot of electricity. We first noted the dilemma in a 2009 post on supercomputing at the UK's Met Office.

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