Blue Waters to significantly increase campus energy consumption

The University will soon be home to the largest supercomputer in the world. Blue Waters, as the computer is named, is largely being funded through grants from the state and federal governments.

But while who will finance the construction and operation of the machine is known, how the increase in energy consumption will affect the University’s budget remains to be seen.

Bill Bell, spokesman for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, said a machine like Blue Waters will take a very significant amount of energy to run. The University, he said, has taken many precautions to ensure the energy consumption is as low as possible.

“We are doing a lot of things to mitigate that and keep our footprint as small as possible,” Bell said. “The system will be water cooled, instead of by traditional air conditioners. We expect that to reduce the amount of energy it takes to run the computer by 40 percent.”

There are already cooling towers on site at the Petascale Computing Facility, which will be home to Blue Waters.

More than 60 percent of the year, water chilled without the use of electricity will be pumped into these towers to cool the massive computer, Bell said.

“We will chill the water just using outside air,” he said. “It gets cold enough around here.”

The energy needed to run a machine like Blue Waters cannot be supplied by the University’s Abbott Power Plant, 1117 S. Oak St. in Urbana, said Terry Ruprecht, director of energy conservation for Facilities and Services at the University.Instead, the University will have to buy the electricity and have it supplied to the Petascale facility via the Ameren IP company.

“We have absolutely no capability to generate electricity to the quantity necessary for Petascale,” Ruprecht said. “Essentially, all of our generated electricity is spoken for already in serving the main campus.”

Even though the University is facing a serious budget crisis, Bell said everything possible is being done to lower the operating costs of Blue Waters.

“We are certainly taking this very seriously,” he said. “IBM, who is building the machine, is the leader in building systems that use as little energy as possible.”

Randy Kangas, associate vice president for planning and budgeting at the University, said more grants will come down the line to help finance the cost of running the computer so the burden of the electricity and other bills will not fall on the University.

“The presumption at the moment is that a grant will cover the cost of operation of the unit, Kangas said. “It will be somewhat like a cost recovery.”

Bell said the second phase of funding to operate Blue Waters will come from the National Science Foundation, an agency within the executive branch of the federal government. The foundation has agreed to continue this second wave of funding for five years after the machine is up and running.

Kangas said who will finance the operational costs of Blue Waters after the initial five years remains to be seen.

“Can it, in the future, present a problem in terms of energy usage? It’s possible,” Kangas said. “At the moment, we have certainly done the best forecasting we can on it.”