Sustainability was selected by SKA staff and leaders as a foundational value of the nascent SKA Observatory (SKAO).
The SKA is designed to deliver transformational science for at least 50 years. The aim is to build and operate a sustainable observatory, and work to minimise negative environmental and other impacts of the construction and operation of the telescopes over their entire lifetime. To this end, SKAO has included sustainability as a requirement within its procurement policy.
The following general principles have been identified for SKAO:
- Increase awareness of our environmental impact amongst our Member and partner organisations, employees, facility users, and contractors;
- Monitor our consumption of primary raw materials (water, energy etc.) and implement the principles of reduction, reuse and recycling across all our activities to minimise waste and CO2 emissions produced as a result of our activities;
- Ensure environmental performance of prospective suppliers is considered in the procurement processes;
- Encourage the use of modes of transport by staff, contractors and users that minimise environmental impact; and promote the use of technologies and innovative solutions for online collaboration to limit travel to that essential for the delivery of our mission; and
- Develop, exploit and maintain our facilities in a sustainable manner, seeking to foster positive cooperation with local communities around the telescope sites; seeking to protect and value local indigenous culture and heritage, natural habitats and local wildlife; minimising light and radio-frequency pollution; and preserving biodiversity in partnership with local communities.
What do we mean when we talk about an environmentally sustainable SKA?
SKAO is a radio astronomy observatory that is being built with the intention of delivering transformational science for (at least) 50 years. Sustainability describes several concepts. Our overall ambition is to ensure financial and economic sustainability of the Observatory through a compelling Impact proposition (scientific and otherwise) that motivates continued investment in the Observatory at local, regional, national and global level. Another aspect is environmental sustainability. This concept -among other sustainability aspects- has been built into SKAO policies from the outset, with the aim of minimising negative environmental impacts of the construction and operation of the SKA over its entire lifetime. This is consistent with the definition of sustainability from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development:
“…Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…”.
Support for concrete action towards sustainability comes from many fronts, from the public, from the community of scientists who will use the SKA telescopes for their research, from the organisations – and their representatives on the SKA Board of Directors and the future Council – coming together to fund SKAO, and from the personnel of the organisation.
What are the biggest issues related to sustainability of the SKA?
Due to its distributed nature across three countries in both hemispheres and its global footprint involving engineers, scientists, suppliers and other partners from over 15 countries on five continents, the overall environmental impact of the SKA could be significant without mitigation. To a large extent, such impact results from the carbon emissions associated with powering the telescopes and the associated supercomputers used to process and analyse the data collected over the 50 years or more that it will operate. This should account for a very large fraction of our total carbon dioxide emission.
Of course, the reason we are building the SKA is to transform our view of the universe and our place within it but the journey towards achieving this goal is paved with a number of positive impacts of benefit for society at large in terms of economy, society and culture.
Independent studies (see references below) have found that the net economic, human capital, innovation and social effects of large-scale Research Infrastructures are positive, creating value many times more than the cost as a result of innovation and knowledge flowing on from the project. SKAO has a great opportunity to demonstrate that development of large-scale RIs and sustainability considerations can go hand in hand.
What will the SKA’s carbon footprint be?
The Australian context
A by-product of the need to avoid radio frequency interference caused by civilisation is that the site where the SKA-Low antennas will be located in Australia is located ~150 kilometres from the nearest electrical grid and bringing a power line would be prohibitively expensive. Traditionally, towns and other facilities such as mines in such remote places have been powered by diesel generators and are now increasingly supplemented by solar power.
The supercomputers that will process the data from the SKA antennas in Australia are located in Perth and can draw power from the electrical grid. Renewable sources contributed around 13% (source: Western Australian government) of the power in the grid in Perth in 2016. Additional measures at these facilities include geothermal and solar panels.
The South African context
In South Africa, the SKA site near Carnarvon is connected to the South African national electricity grid and the supercomputers for SKA dishes will be in Cape Town, again with access to the national energy grid. Both will benefit from the national energy mix in which renewable sources represent around 10% of the total.
If the remote SKA site in Australia was to be powered by diesel generators and the rest of the Observatory in Australia and in South Africa draws electricity from the grid, then the CO2 emissions resulting from power would be >50,000 tons / year, or the equivalent of a town of more than 10,000 people if using the global per capita average of 4.8 tons/year.
Based on the studies we have conducted, we are confident SKA will be able to source a very substantial fraction of the electricity needed to operate both telescopes and computers from solar and other renewable sources, with the goal of minimising CO2 emissions and of ultimately obtaining a majority of power from renewable sources.
CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope, an SKA precursor facility which is located on the SKA site in Australia, is powered by a purpose-built photovoltaic / battery / diesel hybrid power station that generates about 60% of the electricity consumed by the facility from solar energy.
SKA is pursuing a strategy to secure Power Purchase Agreements in both Australia and South Africa through which a power supplier will construct and operate power plants at the telescope sites with a very high fraction of power generated from renewable sources, most likely from solar photovoltaic cells. We are confident that we can achieve results at least as good for SKA as CSIRO has achieved for ASKAP, and will aim over time to achieve even better outcomes.
Situation at the HQ in the UK
The SKA’s global Headquarters is located in the UK. Electricity for the SKA HQ building comes from 100% renewable sources. The HQ was designed with sustainability as a guiding principle and features a number of environmentally-friendly measures, such as natural daylighting and ventilation, dark sky compliant lighting around the building, and electric vehicle charging points, among others. More here.
What about the impact of travel?
Delivering the SKA and its science impact requires an international collaboration of thousands of engineers, scientists, policy makers and other experts around the world. In some cases, especially during construction, travel is unavoidable to conduct day-to-day SKA business, especially because of the specialised expertise of personnel within SKAO and its partner organisations. Before the pandemic, international travel by SKAO staff typically generated about 1,000 tons of CO2 each year. This is nine times less than the amount produced in our projections of the power required for the telescopes – even with the high fraction of renewables we are aiming for – but is still non negligible.
The recent events around the COVID-19 situation have shown that people can collaborate and work together effectively using more remote means than was previously thought possible and have prompted a re-evaluation of the need for work-related travel in astronomy, as in an extremely wide range of activities. More and more events are being organised either fully virtually or adopting a hybrid approach, allowing remote participation. SKAO will proactively pursue new ways of working and collaborating remotely with the aim of minimising our carbon footprint.
How do you mitigate the impact of travel?
While some travel is necessary and important in a multinational organisation of this scale, with three host sites and many partners around the world, we are nevertheless committed to eliminate unnecessary travel and more generally limit travel to that essential for the delivery of our mission. SKAO is already equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing capabilities, which reduce the need for travel.
We will continue to use and seek to expand the use of technologies that allow us to interact and work in a collaborative way remotely.
What is SKAO doing to minimise its carbon footprint?
Since power consumption represents a significant fraction of the SKA’s carbon footprint, we are committed to exploring and implementing mechanisms that ensure that we use electricity generated from renewable sources wherever possible.
The highest priority, and the best opportunity to reduce our environmental impact, is to use electricity generated using solar photovoltaic panels at the SKA sites in Australia and in South Africa. At this stage, SKAO is planning to invest in feasibility-studies by engaging with companies that could implement renewables-based power systems at the telescope sites. In response to a call issued by SKAO, a number of companies have already expressed interest in supplying renewable power to the SKA sites. SKAO is now planning the work required to ensure that these solutions can be implemented.
We are also exploring ways to maximise the use of sustainably-generated power for the SKA’s computing facilities. In Australia for example, the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth where SKA data will be processed makes use of solar panels on its roof and façade to generate 140kW of electricity on site, as well as using a unique groundwater cooling system.
Does SKAO report on environmental sustainability indicators?
We are building sustainability targets into the plans for the construction and operation of the SKA. As those plans are implemented, we will report on indicators such as the amount of CO2 generated by each major activity, the environmental impact of changes to the baseline design and plan for SKAO, the fraction of power used that was generated from renewable sources, and other relevant indicators.
Other sustainability aspects, like all impact Key Performance Indicators, will be regularly monitored and presented to the SKAO Council through periodic reports.
Does SKAO implement green purchasing practices?
The construction and operation of the SKA will be incredibly complex, and many organisations will be directly involved in the processes. We have identified the following goals:
- Minimise carbon emissions associated with the construction of the SKA, with an aspirational target of 50% of materials delivered to site by sustainable means;
- Minimise waste generation and maximise reuse and recycling (measured through factors including the percentage of waste diverted from landfill, and volume of remediated soil/demolition material reused);
- Minimise the use of potable water during construction;
- Source and use environmentally and socially responsible materials, with an aspirational benchmark of 20%, by value, of construction materials to be of a reused or recycled source (and 25% recycled aggregate for permanent works); and
- All timber to be sustainably sourced.
Those are goals, but what about procuring from sustainable sources?
SKAO’s procurement policy is aligned with industry best practice. Where possible, we aim to ensure sustainable procurement, avoiding the unnecessary depletion of natural resources.
Environmental factors are considered when making decisions, including what products are made of, where they have come from and the environmental cost of making them. SKAO seeks to identify and manage the environmental impacts within its supply chain and will work with suppliers to facilitate and encourage sustainable practices within their organisations and drive such practices within suppliers’ own supply chains. We challenge our suppliers to reduce their environmental footprint through:
- conservation of resources, including the use of energy, water and materials;
- waste minimisation, both within their operations and through reduction of non-reusable packaging;
- reducing the impact of transportation; and
- applying the principle of ‘whole life costing’ to promote sustainable procurement. This looks at all life-cycle costs (including disposal costs) of goods services and works and makes sure they are minimised.
What about making the SKA telescopes and supercomputers themselves more sustainable?
SKAO has made significant strides over the years in reducing the power that will be needed to run the SKA. We have more than halved the estimated power consumption of the SKA telescopes through innovative design and by choosing technologies that consume less electricity while performing at the expected level. This is the most effective action that can be taken to reduce the impact of SKAO, as using as little electricity as possible is far better than using power generated even using the cleanest and most efficient technologies.
On the computing front, SKAO will require two powerful supercomputers to process data from its telescopes. While such computers – equivalent to some of the most powerful in the world currently – would typically consume over 6MW of power each to deliver on the SKA requirements, the SKA’s supercomputers will need to do the same with only about 2MW. This is three times less than industry-standard and will result in a significantly lowered carbon footprint. Such demanding needs are also driving innovation in low-power electronics which will not only benefit the SKA but could also find their way into other uses in society, contributing to lower our global carbon footprint.
Centre for Economics and Business Research. (2019). The Importance of Physics to the Economies of Europe. Retrieved from https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.eps.org/resource/resmgr/policy/eps_pp_physics_ecov5_full.pdf.
Technopolis Group. (2011). The role and added value of large-scale research facilities. Retrieved from https://www.ceric-eric.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/RAMIRIref_2011_Technopolis_report.pdf.
Technopolis Group. (2020). Evaluation of the Benefits that the UK has derived from CERN. Retrieved from https://stfc.ukri.org/files/impact-publications/cern-impact-report/.