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Home / Articles / Views / Danish Plan /  Another lump of coal
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Thursday, December 17,2009

Another lump of coal

By Paul Danish

NCAR is going to build a giant new supercomputer, the better to study climate change, which is cool. Indeed, the project has already provided one profound, if wickedly ironic, insight into the problem.

According to an article in The Denver Post, the machine, which will contain more than 100,000 processors and be 20 times more powerful than NCAR’s current computer, will be used to create models showing how climate change will impact specific regions like the Rocky Mountains or even a ski area, according to Lawrence Buja, a director of NCAR’s climate science and applications program.

Buja says that while climate scientists are used to thinking and modeling globally, they are now being asked to think and model locally, which, perhaps nonintuitively, requires more complex models and more computing power.

NCAR climatologists are now being asked to solve much more complex questions, he said, which are often local in nature, like “Where are the impacts? How fast is it coming? What does it mean on a regional scale? What does it mean to me in the Rocky Mountains?” Examples of those requesting models include utilities in major western cities, insurance companies, an international bank and a ski area, he said. All want to plug unique variables into climate change models to anticipate how people can prepare and adapt.

“We didn’t have that in models before. Now people are asking. It requires us to engage with whole new communities,” he said.

Like Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne, Wyoming? Where the idea of a Climate Action Plan is to find an air-conditioned bar when the temperature goes over 90? Where they don’t give a rip about local climate models, because they know that 50 years from now it will still suck?

Yup, Cheyenne.

NCAR’s going to engage with it, alright.

It turns out that The Mother of All Supercomputers — maybe better described as The Daddy of Them All under the circumstances — will not be located on Table Mesa or anywhere else in Boulder. The $500 million machine will be housed in a $66 million building to be built on a 24-acre tract of land in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Why Cheyenne? Because Cheyenne is one of the world’s leading centers of both climate and computer research, and, what’s more, a disproportionately high number of both climatologists and computer geeks inexplicably like to ride the rodeo and photograph freight-car graffiti in their spare time.

OK, I made the last part up. The real reasons are that: 1) Land and construction cost less in Cheyenne, where the average time it takes to get a $500 million construction project approved is probably slightly shorter than the average Brahma Bull ride at a rodeo, and 2) electricity is cheaper in Wyoming than in Colorado.

How much cheaper? According to the Post, the average cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity is 6.03 cents in Wyoming, compared with 8.16 cents per kilowatt-hour in Colorado. That can add up to big savings when your computer center could be sucking down megawatt-hours worth of juice 24/7.

And why is electricity so cheap in Wyoming?

The Post story makes vague allusions to “cheaper and more plentiful electricity from Wyoming’s relatively untapped grid, including wind-generated power …” Huh. It doesn’t take a freaking supercomputer to tell you why electricity is cheap in Wyoming. It’s because most of it is produced by burning coal — and the folks at NCAR know it. Yeah, Wyoming has 985 megawatts of wind energy on line and 300 more under construction, but most of its power comes from 24 coal-fired power plants, which have a capacity of 6,255 megawatts. The wind plants, which probably produce electricity no more than 35 or 40 percent of the time, compared with 80 percent of the time for coal, probably account for less than 10 percent of the state’s electric output — and the more expensive part at that.

And since Wyoming produces more coal than any state in the country — more than 467 million tons in 2008 — it will probably be one of the last states in the country to quit using coal to produce electric power.

What we seem to have here is one of those “moments of clarity” we’ve heard so much about.

The folks at NCAR spend a lot of time sounding the alarm about global warming and lecturing the world on the need to reduce its carbon footprint in order to combat it.

They’re at the center of the global conversation on climate change. But when it came time to choose between reducing their own carbon footprint or reducing their electric bill by buying coal-produced kilowatts, they chose the latter.

This is hypocritical, but that’s beside the point. The important point here is that the people who would have the world turn the global economics and global politics every which way but loose in the name of combating global warming clearly don’t take their own narrative very seriously.

And the broader lesson couldn’t be clearer either. If the world’s leading climatologists in the world’s richest country have concluded that reducing their own carbon footprint is too burdensome, why should we expect anyone else to conclude differently?

If you want to know why nothing is apt to come out of the Copenhagen conference, ask NCAR. Better yet, ask its computer.

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NCAR is not hypocritical.  Danish could have taken a minute to visit http://www.cisl.ucar.edu/nwsc/ and read that "Maximum energy efficiency, LEED certification, and achievement of the smallest possible carbon footprint are all goals of the [NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center] project."  Would Danish prefer that NCAR not investigate regional climate impacts?  Without that science, policy might be driven by people just writing whatever occurs to them.  Is that what he wants?  Oh, I get it.

 

 
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