Dialing it in for Earth

The Remote Operations Center – West enables scientists to monitor neutrino experiments from off site, which helps cut down on airplane travel — and carbon dioxide emissions. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Fermilab has an impact on science in many ways. In addition to the laboratory’s lead role in high-energy physics, we contribute to astrophysics, computing, accelerator science and technology, and many other scientific initiatives.

We also contribute to global warming. To run a complex as large as Fermilab requires significant energy resources. Our laboratory recognizes this is a challenge, and many of us have made a significant effort to reduce our carbon footprint whenever and wherever possible. That includes minimizing our travel.

Travel is part of doing business, and there will always be a need for face-to-face meetings. However, with lab employees logging nearly 14 million miles in airplane trips each year — which translates into 2,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually — we should aim to cut back. In fact, since 2008, Fermilab’s per-person air travel has increased. This is despite the fact that Fermilab has significantly upped its videoconferencing game: The lab now has 38 fully equipped videoconference rooms. In 2008, we had only eight.

We can do better. We should consider remote communication and meeting attendance anytime we can.

Consider remote operations for our experiments. In the past, Fermilab experiments required on-shift personnel 24/7 when operating, sometimes requiring air travel for individuals. Recognizing that shifts would be easier to fill when people could operate the experiments remotely, Fermilab set up remote operation capabilities and put them to use, starting with the MiniBooNE neutrino experiment.

The laboratory has since expanded this effort, and remote operation is now standard procedure. Neutrino Division Head Steve Brice notes that European shifters can easily handle night shifts in the United States thanks to remote operations. And CMS Center Head Anadi Canepa says that Fermilab’s Remote Operations Center for the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider means that USCMS scientists don’t have to fly to Geneva for their shifts, either.

Another significant effort has been to expand the lab’s teleconferencing capabilities. The use of Fermilab’s 38 videoconference rooms continues to grow with advances in software and technology, making it extremely easy to attend a meeting on the other side of the world with just a few keystrokes.

But again, we can do better. Accelerator Division Head Mike Lindgren, for example, has supported the effort by converting all AD’s conference rooms to Zoom, and that investment has already been recouped through reduced travel costs. In addition to reducing the lab’s carbon footprint, teleconferencing frequently saves time, so instead of spending the day traveling, you can handle business by video and still have time for other work. Using his office meeting setup allows Lindgren to substantially reduce business travel cost and associated environmental impact while still accomplishing his work.

Let’s put these rooms to use! The next time you think about flying for work, first consider whether you can attend that meeting remotely. Every stay-at-home shift helps the planet.

Bill Pellico is a Fermilab engineer and member of the Sustainability Management Team.