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College blows off steam to help power campus

Rather than replace coal-fired boilers, one university opts for an ambitious geothermal system.

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“I signed a pledge, along with other college presidents, to reduce carbon emissions on campus,” says President Gora. “This step to campuswide geothermal will take us a long way toward curbing our emissions while also ­saving on our fuel costs.”

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The main disadvantage of any geothermal system is the high upfront cost, she notes. In the $41 million first phase, two of Ball State’s four coal-fired boilers will be replaced with geothermal heat pumps. But eventually all will be replaced for a total cost of about $70 million over the course of the five- to eight-year project.

The impetus for Ball State was the urgent need to replace its aging coal-fired boilers – and a surprise: Geothermal is less costly in the long run because of the fuel savings.

“We were told by the [coal-]boiler manufacturers ... that there was no way they could produce these boilers without it costing us $65 million,” Gora says. “That forced us to take a step back and say, ‘Is this really the way we want to go?’ ”

Enter Lowe, who began to research multiple-building systems. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory confirmed that major efficiency gains had been made in such systems over the past decade. That made the prospect of a big geothermal system plausible.

Now that many schools are scrambling to save money on energy and slash carbon emissions by using renewable energy, Ball State’s project could accelerate interest in geothermal. Lowe says he’s already gotten calls from several colleges. So has Dr. Lund of OIT, whose campus began using “direct use” geothermal in the 1960s but says it will soon begin generating its own electricity.

Ball State’s move could also prove to be an anomaly in these tough economic times. While 643 schools have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment that pledges schools to achieve climate neutrality, no more than 80 percent are up to date in filing the requisite greenhouse-gas inventories as part of the plan.

“As things get going and schools file their plans to cut emissions, we think we’ll see 90 percent or more on time,” says Toni Nelson, program director for the ACUPCC. “We know geothermal is something a lot of schools are talking about.”

Others, however, say higher education may be dragging its feet on implementing carbon-reduction plans because of financial challenges.

“To be honest, I think everybody’s backsliding,” says Bill Burtis, a spokesman for Clean Air Cool Planet, which also tracks colleges’ efforts to curb their carbon emissions. “None of these organizations is in the business of reducing carbon.... Nobody’s out hiring people to count their carbon emissions at this point.”

Still, a few schools have seen success with geothermal. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Pomona has a campuswide geothermal heat pump system that uses about 400 wells.

Lowe hopes Ball State’s far larger geothermal project will show that the technology can be used across higher education.

“We’re going to save money long-term from doing this, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “But it’s also the right thing to do.”