The secret big data hero that kept your A/C working through the heat wave

If you managed to stay cool during this month’s blistering heat wave, you might have the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center to thank.

I caught up with the Holyoke center’s executive director, John Goodhue, at MIT on Wednesday, and he shared a funny story from two Fridays ago. Like me, you probably recall that temperatures hit triple digits in parts of the state, but haven’t given any thought to how the power grid strained to meet our energy demands.

Well, here’s one way the grid kept up:

“I’d used my iPad to map the route to some obscure place in Maine,’’ Goodhue told me. “And just at the moment when the iPad froze, completely obliterating the route — which was causing some words between me and my spouse — the power company called up and said they were having supply and demand issues and asked, ‘What can [the computing center] do to help?’ We said, ‘Well, if we turn this off and this off, we can change the load by about a half megawatt.’ So I was coordinating four people doing the load management while getting lost on the way to Maine.’’


For perspective, half a megawatt is enough to power about 330 10,000-BTU air conditioners. So the computing center didn’t save the day alone — “there were dozens, maybe hundreds of locations that got the same call,’’ Goodhue said — but a few hundred ACs kept running on power freed up by his team.

On a normal day, the center’s high-performance computers aid complex research at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, and UMass — everything from genome sequencing to mechanical engineering.

“Not surprisingly, when the computers are working hard, they consume more energy than when they’re idling, just like your laptop,’’ Goodhue explained, nodding at my Dell. “It’s in battery saver mode now, and there’s an equivalent for high performance computers. That was the bulk of the change. We effectively put a bunch of our computers in energy saver mode — after checking with the user community to make sure nothing important was going on, of course.’’

Image courtesy of Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center’s excellent Flickr account.

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