Supercomputers, accelerators or laser systems require a lot of electricity. But what happens to these systems if the power goes out or even a power outage occurs?
The Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villingen is currently very busy. Researchers from all over the world come here to conduct their experiments in one of the five major research facilities. For example, they test new materials for batteries or the Standard Model of particle physics. If there is a shortage of electricity this winter, things may calm down.
The PSI consumes about as much electricity as 25,000 Swiss households – 126 gigawatt hours per year. That’s why Markus Jörg, Head of Infrastructure and Electrical Installations at PSI, anticipates federal demands in the event of a power shortage: “Depending on the severity, we will probably have to save ten to twenty percent.” At the moment they are preparing for this, writing contingency plans and looking at which research facilities they can run at a reduced rate or even close completely.
Without electricity, no federal government weather forecasts
Also affected is the powerful CSCS data center in Lugano – where the daily weather forecasts are calculated by MeteoSwiss. The center needs about 40 gigawatt hours per year. It is therefore not a major consumer and will therefore probably not be affected by savings orders. Nevertheless, those responsible are already making plans for the worst-case scenario. The weather forecasts are not in danger, deputy director Michele de Lorenzi emphasizes.
For the minimal operation of MeteoSwiss you need about ten percent of the normal power consumption. The rest of the computing power of the powerful computers is reserved for research. If there were longer interruptions or outages, it would be painful for the researchers. Because the time windows are allocated well in advance – just like with PSI. Accordingly, research throws back shifts by months.
Energy-consuming particle accelerators
The Cern does the same. The nuclear research center consumes a lot of electricity: half as much as the entire canton of Geneva. It obtains almost the entire amount from France, making it one of the largest consumers of electricity in the neighboring country. The lion’s share is consumed by the particle accelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful of its kind.
CERN has the highest priority to ensure that it does not go off the grid in the event of an emergency. As long as it can be planned, it is also manageable and technically feasible. A blackout would be much worse, says Markus Jörg of PSI: “Our main concern is that the tension is gone from one moment to the next”. Then certain devices and components can break.
Energy prices squeeze budgets
The institutes are also concerned about rising electricity prices. “If the costs stay that high, it’s definitely going to hit us hard,” said Michele de Lorenzi of the CSCS. The energy crisis with its price shocks, possible blackouts and shortages could therefore shake up research.