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Geothermal Promising to Cut Ball State’s Carbon Emissions in Half

Ball State University is building the largest geothermal system in the country, a project promising to cut the school’s carbon emissions in half.

  • Geothermal Project Promises to Cut Ball State's Emissions in Half

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    Photo: Georgia Perry

    Chief engineer for the geothermal heating/cooling project, Jim Lowe stands on the construction site in Muncie, Ind. On Nov. 13. So far, the project has been on schedule and on budget.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    Mud, machinery, puddles, and pipes cover the ground at Ball State University's geothermal heating/cooling construction site.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry / WFIU-WTIU News

    Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora at her desk in Muncie, Ind. She began spearheading the geothermal project shortly after taking office.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    An in-ground borehole awaits completion at Ball State University's geothermal project construction site. Construction crews started drilling boreholes on May 9, 2009 - the day after the school's spring commencement - and expect to be finished by June of 2011.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    Overcoats hang alongside framed photographs of past employees at the Ball State University coal plant. Ball State has used coal for energy for over 100 years.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    Ball State University coal plant workers (left to right) David Mowrey, Doug Lowe, and Estill Blevins relax and read newspapers around an on-site common area. Ball State's new geothermal heating/cooling system will result in the closure of the coal plant, which produces 85,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    Dried mud cakes the interior of a utility truck belonging to Corbitt and Sons Construction Company, located on Ball State University's campus at the site of the geothermal operation. While the drilling has been going on since May 9, 2009, some members of Corbitt and Sons have only been working at the site for a matter of a few weeks.

  • Ball State Geothermal

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    Photo: Georgia Perry/ WFIU

    Mark Tucker releases steam from the coal-burning furnace in the Ball State University coal plant. In coal-fired boilers like the ones in the plant in Muncie, steam is used to turn turbines, which produce electricity.

Read More: Part II – How Practical is Ball State’s Geothermal Project?
The second part of this series, exploring the implications of Ball State’s project.

If you dig down just a few dozen feet below the earth’s surface, you’ll find the temperature remain between 52 to 55 degrees. Depending on the time of year, geothermal systems work by using the earth’s temperature as a heat source – or sink – by sending water through miles of pipes and concentrating it to meet the temperature the thermostat calls for.

Using this basic concept spread out over 660 acres to heat and cool nearly fifty buildings hasn’t been attempted before in this country. But that’s the challenge Ball State facing.

Drills the size of tree trunks are punching through dirt, clay and limestone creating a polka-dot pattern that stretches over land equal to a half dozen football fields. Just one of these 400 foot deep holes could heat and cool a house. But 41-hundred will take care of the entire campus.

“They still think of it as technology that’s strange but it’s not,” said Jim Lowe, the project’s engineer.

In a state where more than 95 percent of energy needs are met through coal and natural gas, Lowe says there’s still a gee-wiz to geothermal.

“This is a major major change. Instead of thinking about building boilers and using coal and natural gas, we’re shifting that paradigm to where we’re relying on a renewable energy source here,” he said.

Thinking Outside The Smokestack

When the school originally tried to replace its four Eisenhower-era coal boilers Ball State President Jo Ann Gora says a $50 million estimate led to sticker shock and that’s before factoring in the cost of coal.

So the school started to think outside the smokestack.

It really shows that America has renewable energy sources if you just have the will to use them. We’re using the renewable energy that the ground represents. Buildings rest on the ground. The ground is the source of renewable energy. Why don’t we use it?” she said.

Unlike wind and solar, which don’t operate efficiently 24/7, geothermal systems are on all the time. But each one must be installed on site; meaning it would take thousands of these projects to equal the heating and cooling power of just one coal plant.

“We’re not a bunch of tree huggers. I still like to ride my Harley-Davidson,” said Jim Huddelston, who manages the project with his Stetson-shaped hard hat.

He says the project will keep 80,000  tons of carbon emissions from the skies above Muncie. But he says the initial cost of geothermal is steep and that keeps many from digging deep…in their pockets to pay for it.

“Problem is when you and I go to buy a house and I need every penny I have to get that down payment and to get the fixtures that my wife wants and put these curtains up. And we don’t spend the extra 30 percent,” Huddleston said.

It could cost Ball State as much as $80 million to build the system. But officials estimate energy up to two million dollars a year. And right now, even with $40 million from the state and $5 million in federal stimulus funds, Ball State has raised just over half the money it needs.

Despite the financial hurdles, Oregon Institute of Technology Professor John Lund says Ball State will show that large scale geothermal is a viable resource.

“There are probably over 50 schools have heat pumps but this would be the largest. It does show that it can be done on a large scale. I.e. this can be done all over the country. From North Dakota down to Florida. From Maine down to Texas,” he said.

Read More: Part II – How Practical is Ball State’s Geothermal Project?
The second part of this series, exploring the implications of Ball State’s project.

Daniel Robison

Daniel started as WFIU's Assistant News Director in July 2008. He graduated with a B.A. in history in 2007 and earned an M.A. in journalism two years later. Daniel hosts Ask the Mayor weekly and the occasional Noon Edition. He also hosts Morning Edition on Thursdays, sleepily. Daniel's beats include everything News Director Stan Jastrzebski wants him to cover. And it feels strange to type biography of myself in the third person like this. So that's that.

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  • John Hazucha, PE

    This project will not save the approximately 80,000 tons of CO2 emmissions that it advertises. It may save some. However, what they are really doing is moving the CO2 emmissions off campus. They eliminate the CO2 from the campus coal-fired boilers, but add it to the coal-fired electrical generating plants of the local utility. Unless, of course, the local utility generates electricity from wind, biomass, hydro, or nuclear.

  • John Hazucha, PE

    This project will not save the approximately 80,000 tons of CO2 emmissions that it advertises. It may save some. However, what they are really doing is moving the CO2 emmissions off campus. They eliminate the CO2 from the campus coal-fired boilers, but add it to the coal-fired electrical generating plants of the local utility. Unless, of course, the local utility generates electricity from wind, biomass, hydro, or nuclear.

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