Folding at Home is Killing the Planet

Folding@Home is a distributed computing project — people from through out the world download and run software to band together to make one of the largest supercomputers in the world. I’m all for curing cancer, but I suspect the solution will come out of good conservation and research in to either deep ocean life or rain forest studies, not a computer, or PlayStation chunking away at how proteins react in a simulated environment.

Play Station 3 is doing a lot of folding in its spare time, but at 200 watts of draw it is consuming just over 6 Kilowatts a day of power.  This is roughly 10 pounds of Coal  I rounded down to make the math easy.  When coal is burned it combines with Oxygen to form the Green House Gas, Carbon Dioxide.  Each Pound of Coal burned adds 2 pounds of Carbon Dioxide to the air, and removes 1 pound of Oxygen. The cost to the planet of using 3650 pounds of Coal per year times 200,000 folders… is huge, but if you just want a monetary number that is $12,775,000 worth of coal at $35 a ton, or based on the price of 12 cents a kilowatt it is $70,080,000 and 730 kilotons of Carbon dioxide.

It would seem to me that a number between 12 and 70 million dollars a year would do a lot more in the hands of hands on scientific research than it would in the hands of a virtual research environment.

Actually it would buy you up to 1.4 million acres of rain forest a year.

Some of you will argue not all of the energy comes from coal…   This is true but unless you are powering your console with solar power you are creating, the grid is drawing power that it wouldn’t have and even if some of that energy is nuclear or solar or from wind mills, that increases the coal consumed as currently there is no storage of surplus energy.

Also these numbers don’t account for things like the additional Airconditioning that goes on.  If you turn on a 380 watt heat source your airconditioner has to work harder burning about 130% more energy than that of the heat source itself.

Do I think Folding at home should be abandoned? Maybe.  Certainly I think that reducing global warming is more important than curing Alzheimer’s, which is saying something since I am a prime candidate for the disease, as my maternal Grandfather suffered from the disease.  I’m less excited about finding cures for Mad Cow Disease

Some parting thoughts:

More than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest.  Burning coal removes oxygen from the air, one pound of oxygen for every pound of coal.

More than 56,000 square miles of natural forest are lost each year, That is 35,840,000 acres.  1.4 million acres could be saved if rather than donating electricity to the Folding Project people donated the same amount of money to the Rain Forest.

 
Carbon based Electricity production accounts for about 2/3 of electricity produced in North America

Net Generation Shares by Energy Source: 
2006

 

Compared with BlueGene Folding @ Home is horribly inefficient.  IBM quotes Blue Gene’s Processors as using 1/12 the energy and being 6 times faster.  That is a 7200% improvement before taking in to account the amount of waste from Folding using

Redundant calculations in order to assure that all work units are processed.

 

This Article sites the power Usage 40% lower than what I was looking at… Which is better, but not amazingly so.

 *Update*

After speaking with several Users, most are estimating that their electric bill has gone up about $35-46 a month.

It is also worth noting, the PS3, an Xbox 360, Even your PC is not really designed to run at 100% CPU usage all of the time, that additional heat will greatly increase the likelihood of a Failure.  If your MTBF is 3 years, assuming the device is on 6 hours a day you can expect that it will be 9 months to one year if the device is run at 100% 24 hours a day.

I am not saying PS3 is worse than a PC quite the contrary, but as my audience is primarily gamers I am speaking to what they can address.  The impact is likely higher on a PC which is less efficient, and would normally hibernate when not in use.