Ball State is often considered the forgotten stepchild to larger state schools such as IU and Purdue, but thanks to an ambitious new geothermal project, it is blazing new paths in large-scale energy efficiency and the world is taking notice.
The Muncie-based university is halfway through one of the most ambitious energy revamps in the nation, moving from primarily dirty coal to more of a reliance on geothermal and natural gas.
“No one has done a system like this before,” said Jim Lowe, Ball State’s Director of Engineering, Construction and Operations, who spearheaded the project. “It’s a fantastic, forward-thinking project that will show the benefit of large-scale renewables … (and is) a great example of how we can reduce the U.S.’s dependence of foreign energy sources.”
University officials are pleased with what they’ve seen since the system went online after Thanksgiving last year. But despite the promise of $2 million in annual savings and reducing the university’s output of hundreds of thousands of tons of various pollutants, the second phase of the project is far from assured.
Six times more efficient
When most people think geothermal heat, they envision drilling deep into the earth and capturing the warmth generated far, far underneath the earth’s surface. But that’s not how Ball State’s system works. Thousands of 400- to 500-foot boreholes have been drilled below the frost line in three fields across campus. In hotter months, pipes carry warm water from the school’s cooling system through the soil — which is 55 degrees year round — to chill it. In the winter, cold water is pumped through the pipes and the ground helps heat it.
The borehole fields were strategically placed under green space and parking lots, allowing any repairs to be easily made.
Lowe estimates 25 percent or more of the heat generated by coal is lost through the plant’s smokestacks. The geothermal system is much more efficient, retaining all of the heat and, as a bonus, generating no pollutants. In the summer, the excess heat is recycled and used to heat water in buildings linked to the system.
Experts estimate the new system is 650 percent more efficient than the previous coal-fired version.
More than 1,000 miles of pipes were laced through the boreholes and connected to 10 miles of pipes, which currently connect 47 campus buildings to the geothermal system. More than 20,000 gallons of water are heated or cooled every minute under campus to serve 6 million square feet of space.
The system is designed to expand with the growing campus and has the capacity to supply several new buildings with heat and chilled air.
Lowe said Ball State’s geothermal project is about three times bigger than the next largest in the United States.
Turning off coal
Combined with the recent mild winter, the first geothermal plant allowed the university to
shut down — at least temporarily — all four of its coal-fired boilers, greatly reducing its carbon emissions.
Switching from coal was a massive undertaking. Ball State has relied on coal for heat for more than 100 years, since the school’s first building was constructed in 1898. When the campus expanded in 1918, so did the reliance on coal. The current set of coal boilers were constructed in the 1940s and ’50s and had been discharging 200 tons of particulate matter into the air annually since.
Ball State’s effort is about six times larger than any previous geothermal project undertaken in the United States, and the world has taken notice. Lowe says TV crews and officials from Germany, Japan and other countries have toured the new facility. Stanford, Ohio State and Kentucky are universities planning similar, if somewhat smaller, geothermal projects.
“Military installations have been doing geothermal for years,” said Scott Conlon, director of projects for Ohio State University. “Energy costs are increasing dramatically, as are the costs to mitigate (carbon emissions). It was a simple decision once we did the research.
“What Ball State is doing is a great idea — geothermal works much better the bigger you get. We’d love to be able to do a central plant like they have. It’s very impressive, but we’re not at that point yet.”
As part of a federal stimulus grant, Lowe said the university will be closely monitoring its energy usage and posting the data for interested parties.
Geothermal wasn’t really considered when Ball State began to investigate replacing the four coal boilers in 2004. Engineers planned to build new coal-fired boilers that would also burn biomass — renewable organic material such as wood, agricultural crops and waste and even municipal waste — with the hope of going 100 percent biomass in the future.
But with federal emission regulations tightening and the potential costs skyrocketing, university officials decided to look for other alternatives. Enter geothermal. Many Hoosier K-12 schools use similar systems, but on much smaller scales.
Ground was broken in 2009, and the first boreholes were drilled in the fall of 2010. The state-of-the-art energy station was completed in June 2011. Lowe estimates more than 2,300 jobs were created by the project, though most are temporary construction jobs.
“(We are) deeply impressed with the foresight and innovation of Ball State University’s geothermal project,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Ball State’s ambitious project is bringing cleaner air to East Central Indiana, saving significantly on long-term energy costs and showcasing their campus as a major innovator in an always competitive collegiate field. Ball State’s dynamism has also sparked widespread, renewed interest in geothermal technologies, which is already accelerating development of America’s geothermal supply chain, and which will mean more American jobs in renewable energy technology.
Ball State typically burns 36,000 tons of coal a year, releasing 85,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the air and costing the university an average of $3.3 million a year. Although Ball State will save that money by no longer buying coal — at least in the future — Lowe estimated it could spend up to $1 million more for the electricity used to pump the water through the pipes, though he said there hasn’t seen a noticeable spike in electrical usage so far.
The cost of the geothermal system is about $80 million, but Ball State has raised only part of the funds, mostly from a $45 million appropriation from the state legislature and a $5 million federal stimulus grant. So far, only the north side of campus— with the exception of one or two buildings — has been connected to the system. The south side will be connected and an existing HVAC building converted into a pump station when the additional funding is obtained, but Lowe refused to speculate on when that might happen.
Lowe said the university is seeking grants and other funding options to begin the second phase. Barring another abnormally warm winter, Lowe said half the coal-burning boilers will return to duty until the second phase is completed.
Will the project be completed? Of course, but in the current economic and political climate, it may take a while.