Resort facilities

The energy crisis is squeezing science at CERN and other major facilities

A pressure gauge at the cryogenics of the Large Hadron Collider, which consumes more than half of the electric consumption of the accelerator.Credit: Adam Hart-Davis/SPL

As energy prices rise in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, possibly causing a global economic slowdown and stoking fears of blackouts, particularly in Europe, science labs are not spared. The situation has particularly alarmed CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, which already has massive energy bills in normal years.

On 26 September, CERN’s Governing Board agreed to drastically reduce the facility’s energy consumption in 2022 and 2023, after Électricité de France (EDF), a French electricity supplier, asked the laboratory to reduce the load on its network. The board decided to bring forward the lab’s annual end-of-year technical shutdown by two weeks, to November 28, and to reduce operations by 20% in 2023 – which will be done mainly by closing four weeks at the start of next year, mid-November. . Operations will resume as planned at the end of February, in 2023 as in 2024.

CERN has also drawn up plans with EDF for reduced power configurations, in case power consumption should be further limited in the coming months. More modest measures are being taken to reduce overall energy consumption on the CERN campus, including turning off public lighting at night and delaying the start of building heating by a week.

stay cool

CERN’s flagship machine, the 27-kilometre-long Large Hadron Collider, is a heavy consumer of electricity, largely because of its 27 megawatt liquid helium cryogenic system, the largest of its kind in the world. During normal operation, CERN’s annual electricity consumption is around 1.3 terawatt hours (for comparison, the neighboring city of Geneva consumes around 3 terawatt hours per year). Annual maintenance periods for the LHC are scheduled during the winter months, in order to save on its bills. Consumption drops to around 0.5 terawatt hours during longer shutdowns, as happened in 2020-22. After major upgrades, the LHC restarted in April and the total cost of electricity is expected to be around 88.5 million Swiss francs ($89 million), says Joachim Mnich, research director and computing at CERN. Downsizing will reduce this figure significantly next year, but not by 20%, as the accelerator magnets must still be kept cool while the facility is offline.

The move will help save money amid rising energy prices, but Mnich says cost was not the main driver of the decision. Natural gas is the main source of electricity and winter heating in much of Europe, and the CERN council wants to reduce their use of limited supplies, leaving more for people to heat their homes. “It’s not something we do primarily to save money, but as a sign of social responsibility,” he says.

The longer shutdowns will affect scientists who rely on CERN’s other accelerators for their experiments. Those scheduled for the final two weeks of this year’s race will have to be postponed until next year, and competition for the reduced beam time next year will be fiercer than usual, Mnich says. The total number of proton-proton collisions in the LHC will be lower than normal this year and next, but Mnich doesn’t expect that to have a huge effect on science. “At the scale of the whole run 3, which goes through the end of 2025, there will probably only be a small effect,” he says.

Energy prices are also rising significantly in the UK, although institutions there are not saying how this will affect their operations in the near term. A spokesperson for Imperial College London said that although the university, like all large organisations, is being affected by rising energy costs, “we are confident in our resilience and ability to Try the challenge”. The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which operates several large facilities including the Diamon light source at Didcot, says all of its facilities have been “working on energy reduction plans for several years to meet their net zero commitment and reduce costs. ”.

Tightening straps

The German electronic synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg is also affected by the price increase. The facility purchases much of its electricity in installments up to three years in advance, to hedge against price spikes. It has therefore already covered 80% of its energy needs for 2023, 60% for 2024 and 40% for 2025. But the laboratory will soon have to decide whether or not to buy the remaining 20% ​​for next year, specifies Wim Leemans, director of the Accelerator Division. “At current prices, we can’t afford it,” he says.

DESY is in talks with the German government to seek additional funding to maintain operations, which are making important scientific contributions in areas critical to Europe’s future, such as COVID-19 vaccine development, technology batteries and solar power, Leemans points out. But its leaders are also preparing for the worst. Next week they will run tests to see how operating instruments such as the European free-electron X-ray laser and the PETRA III synchrotron at lower power settings would affect the experiments. And as a last resort, DESY is also considering a longer winter break, like CERN. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure our 3,000 users aren’t left behind,” says Leemans.

Research facilities in other parts of the world also face rising energy costs. Bill Matiko, chief operating officer of Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon, says electricity costs make up a “significant” portion of the lab’s annual budget, at around 8%. Although Canada’s domestic energy production, particularly of natural gas, means the situation is not as dire as in Europe, prices continue to rise due to high inflation — electricity rates rose 4% on September 1 and will rise another 4% by April 1 next year. About half of that increase had been anticipated and budgeted for, Matiko says. “It’s something we can easily accommodate by moving things around in the budget,” he says.

The CLS, like many large energy-intensive facilities, has been working to improve its energy efficiency over the past few years, Matiko says. For example, all the lights in the facility have been replaced with LED bulbs and the cryogenic modules have been replaced with new, much more energy efficient superconducting cooling devices. “These have significant savings in terms of energy consumption,” he says. “Energy bills are only a fraction of what they would otherwise be.”

North American labs, such as CLS, won’t need to reduce runtime, but they probably won’t be able to accommodate European scientists who lose beamtime. CLS is already oversubscribed, says Matiko. With the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source in Chicago, Illinois closing in April 2023 for at least a 12-month upgrade, beam weather in North America is also on the point of being limited. “Already, some APS users want access to our beams,” Matiko explains. “There is going to be a big increase in demand for us and for others.”