Switch on to sustainability

Following a series of measures taken to foster a green policy for the Laboratory, CERN Management has recently appointed an Energy Issues Coordinator. While it's hard to imagine magic solutions that would substantially decrease the energy consumption of the research accelerators, it is certainly within our reach to re-use thermal “waste” energy and to optimise infrastructure to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. Real eco-projects are in the making.


CERN's electricity consumption is considerable, equivalent to a third of Geneva's. Over 95% is used by the accelerators and other research facilities. CERN also consumes gas for heating, fuel and gas for cars, and water for sanitary use and accelerator cooling. “It's our responsibility to keep our energy consumption and hence our impact on the environment as low as possible,” says Helfried Burckhart, recently appointed as CERN’s Energy Issues Coordinator. “Although the scope for reducing the energy consumption of existing installations is limited, we can certainly do a lot for new buildings and future research machines.”

In addition to reducing the impact on the environment, optimising the Laboratory's energy use would, of course, reduce running costs too. “We aim to foster progress in energy-related technology,” says Helfried Burckhart. “This is vital for future accelerators and could also be beneficial for society as a whole.”

One of the options being explored is the use of solar panels on the roofs of new buildings. The first to be equipped with a 300 m2 solar thermal collector field of the type invented as a CERN "spin-off" should be a new 4000 m2 building on the Prévessin site that will house offices, technical services including some computing facilities, and an area for visitors. “The main aspect of our integrated energy approach is the way we are combining the processes which create heat and cold, i.e. feeding heating and cooling streams by the same process. In this way, thermal waste energy is kept to a minimum,” Helfried Burckhart explains. “The fact that we intend to use solar energy for cooling the building shows that sustainability and comfort are not necessarily mutually exclusive.” A priority scheme has been designed to use solar energy first and then to add energy from “conventional” sources like the district heating system and compressors up to the level needed.

CERN uses water-cooling for its facilities and most of the energy is dissipated in cooling towers. Future projects include re-using this energy together with heat pumps to heat buildings at CERN and in neighbouring areas. This would reduce the energy bill for CERN and also show its willingness to support sustainability on a wider scale than just the CERN site. “After assessing CERN’s overall energy needs, we explored a few ideas that would indeed contribute to making the Laboratory more sustainable. This implies some investment but will pay back in the future, especially with ever increasing energy prices,” says Burckhart. And, very significantly, he adds: “No action is as important as increasing the energy awareness of every one of us. Although we, as the Laboratory's employees and users, do not pay individual energy bills, we should not forget that saving energy is key to sustainability.” In other words, each and every one of us can make a big difference! Needless to say, this implies doing things like keeping an eye on which equipment really needs to be running, avoiding unnecessary water consumption, using gas instead of petrol, etc. All suggestions for future measures are very welcome!

by Antonella Del Rosso