Research infrastructures are about to get vocal about the energy crisis

25 Oct 2022 | News

The rising cost of energy spells scaling back and temporary shut downs for vital research infrastructures, which are now looking for help from governments to pay their bills. ‘We are going to make ourselves heard,’ they say

LEAPS, powerful, state-of-the-art computing systems process European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser facility data on the fly. Photographer: Jan Hosan

The impact of the war in Ukraine is reverberating through research infrastructures, with rising energy costs and shortages of equipment manufactured abroad hitting these important shared facilities and forcing some to temporarily close their doors.

While the effects are only beginning to be felt, the energy crisis is already hitting the most energy-intensive research infrastructures, such as synchrotrons, neutron sources and high performance computing facilities. CERN, the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, is planning to reduce its capacity by 20%. Others are planning temporary shut downs, as they face millions in additional costs.

“We know it’s a huge problem, and it’s a huge problem in every country,” said Jana Kolar, chair of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). “Even if we do not know exact numbers, we know that some research infrastructures will likely have additional costs of several millions of euros this year already,” she said.

“The consequences for research infrastructures are huge,” said Kolar. “It’s more than just a few facilities. There are research infrastructures that may close as soon as November,” she told Science|Business at the International Conference on Research Infrastructures in Brno last week.

The closing down of infrastructures means cancelled projects, and many are concerned that the youngest scientists will be the most affected, as their projects are the first to be postponed. PhD students in particular may lose access to facilities needed to complete their final work.

Ideas on how to relieve the financial stress are floating around, such as seeking extra funding from governments or an energy price cap for research infrastructures to bring down prices.

Leonid Rivkin, chair of the League of European Accelerator based-Photon Sources, believes special tariffs for research infrastructures is the right way to go. “We are going to lobby, we are going to make ourselves heard,” Rivkin told Science|Business. “The most immediate suggestion would be some kind of regulated tariff.”

According to officials in Brussels, the European Commission is taking stock of the impact of rising prices on research. Speaking at a Science|Business webinar last week, on how R&D is weathering the energy crisis, Joanna Drake, deputy director general at the research directorate said the Commission’s evaluation should be ready “in a couple of weeks”.  

No clear numbers

With research infrastructures facing rising bills, more money could plug the gap. But the gap is big and the situation is volatile.  CERN, for example, consumes 1300GW hours of electricity a year. That’s enough to power 300,000 homes for a year in the UK. But the energy needed changes from month to month, as the seasons shift and the experimental requirements are adjusted.

For comparison, French railroads, the biggest client of Électricité de France, consumes 7000GW hours a year. And CERN is only one of many research infrastructures facing the energy price crunch.

There is no estimate of the overall size of the problem yet, but ESFRI kicked off discussions at a meeting it held in Brno last week. By the next meeting in December, the forum will prepare a discussion paper to start the process.

It’s not just major consumers of electricity that are being affected. Adrian Stănică, director general of the National Institute for Research and Development of Marine Geology and Geoecology in Romania, says the impact on his research infrastructure that helps investigate river-sea systems would not be huge and mostly felt when it comes to modelling on high performance computers. “Let’s say that everybody is affected when it comes to looking at the energy bill,” said Stănică. “In everything that we do, we need to keep this in mind. We need to try to be self-sufficient as much as possible.”

The good news is that European governments that foot the bill for research infrastructures are willing to listen. “In my opinion, there’s no other area in European research policy where countries are as strongly engaged,” says Kolar.

But that doesn’t mean the fight will be easy. “At the moment the crisis is extremely volatile. I’m afraid the short-term solution is to keep calm, but nevertheless, what I tried to suggest, is to stabilise the energy supply of the research infrastructures,” said Rivkin, who presented the situation to the member states and the European Commission at ESFRI’s meeting last week.

Long-term sustainability

The sharp hike in energy costs is focusing minds on ensuring the sustainability of research infrastructures in the future. As Europe goes through a green transition in the coming decades, the energy market is likely to unpredictable. And the current crisis comes just as these facilities are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused major perturbations in their supply chains. Many projects are still delayed, and delays cost money. 

The goal of these discussions is not just short-term relief of high energy bills but a rethinking of how facilities are run to enable long-term security and planning. “We need a sustainable, affordable and predictable energy supply,” Rivkin said. “We need long-term planning. We need to be able, at least on the level of a three to four year PhD project, to have some assurance.”

Research infrastructures are reviewing how to make their facilities more sustainable. The Swiss Light Source for example, one of the LEAPS sources of electromagnetic radiation of extremely high brightness, is to have a big revamp in a few years to reduce energy consumption by 30%. The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble has already undergone a similar upgrade. In many cases, that means replacing electromagnets by permanent magnets, replacing power supply for acceleration by solid state amplifiers, making pumps more efficient, and installing solar panels. They’re not magical solutions, notes Rivkin, but they work.

And the effort isn’t new. Bringing down operating costs has always been a goal. While the current crisis was not foreseen, sustainability has been on the agenda for years.

The last meeting to discuss sustainability of the most energy-intensive research infrastructures took place two weeks ago in Grenoble, where CERN reported that over the last 30 years it has significantly decreased its energy consumption. “There are solutions for what can be done. Most research infrastructures that are energy intensive are working on this,” said Kolar. However, these investments are huge and take years of work, she noted.

For Stănică the issue is defining what is ‘enough’ when it comes to sustainability. While infrastructures are generally built with energy efficiency in mind, what seemed efficient enough in 2020 may be less so today. That is why adaptability is key for facilities. “As long as you have an efficient management, as long as you can be adaptive, this is what’s important. If you identify a crisis, it’s important to see how you get over it,” he said.

At a policy level, a stronger push for sustainability is expected over the coming years. ESFRI, which maps research infrastructures around Europe that then get endorsed and funded by countries and the European Commission, will introduce new criteria for its member facilities, which are likely to be partly guided by Europe’s green and digital agenda. “I cannot pre-empt what will happen, but it’s very likely that these kind of topics will enter the new methodology,” said Kolar.

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