College blows off steam to help power campus

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

Douglas C. Pizac/AP/File
Sparks dance inside a pipe as a worker grinds its edge for a geothermal power plant near Minersville, Utah. It uses 300-degree F. water pumped from an underground lake to generate electricity.

Gazing at an empty soccer field here at Ball State Uni­versity, Jim Lowe explains his vision for converting it into a field whose harvest would supply this entire campus with renewable geo-thermal energy.

That vision is becoming reality. This month Mr. Lowe, the university’s director of engineering, gave the go-ahead for diesel-belching drill rigs to begin punching 400-foot-deep geothermal wells through athletic fields, parking lots, and grassy lawns across this leafy campus.

Parts of the school may temporarily look like oil fields – until earth is eventually smoothed back to cover the wells, Lowe says. But by transforming the state’s third-largest university into a pincushion, Lowe – with the backing of Ball State President Jo Ann Gora and the university board – expects to shift the school’s energy profile into the 21st century.

Hundreds of colleges across the United States have in recent years pledged to “go green” with energy use and reduce carbon emissions. Some have put up solar panels or wind turbines. Just a few score campuses today use geothermal energy – mostly for heating and cooling isolated buildings.

What makes Ball State’s geothermal plan audacious is its size: 3,750 to 4,000 wells will be dug to supply heating and cooling to most (more than 45 of 50-plus) buildings on the 660-acre campus.

“Ball State’s geothermal project is clearly going to be the largest heat-pump complex in the nation,” says John Lund, director of the geoheat center at Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) in Klamath Falls. “These larger projects may be something we’re going to see more of in the future.”

Not to be confused with “direct use” geothermal that uses boiling water pumped to the surface from deep below ground to drive generators or supply space heat, Ball State’s program uses “little G” or “ground source” ­geothermal ­energy – the natural temperature of the near-surface earth.

“What we’re realizing is that the ground itself is really an energy bank,” Lowe says, “and we can make withdrawals from it that help heat and cool the entire campus, saving us money and helping the environment.”

A close (15 feet apart) pattern of five-inch-diameter, 400-foot-deep wells will be tattooed into three well fields on campus. Into each will go two loops of polyethylene piping – one for cold water, one for warm.

In winter, cold water will flow to the fields and down the wells to absorb heat from the surrounding earth, which stays in the 54- to 55-degree F. range year-round. Water warmed by the wells will flow back to a heat exchanger that collects and concentrates the warmth to heat buildings.

To cool those same buildings in summer, the process reverses: Water warmed by the heat exchanger is cycled into the wells, where it is cooled by the surrounding earth.

While pumping all that water requires electrical power, the thermal energy harvested by the system is four times greater than the energy the system consumes. Overall, the project will save an estimated $2 million
annually in fuel costs while halving the campus’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions – an 85,000-ton cut.

“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.”

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.”

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