Ball State is building the largest geothermal system in the country that will cut the school’s carbon emissions in half. The school has received a wealth of attention, with visitors and media from Turkey, Japan and New England and the West Coast.
But how practical – and plausible – is Ball State’s model in working toward climate neutrality – a goal the school and 660 colleges have pledged to work toward?
Across Ball State’s campus from construction of the school’s geothermal system, Mark Tucker dumps coal into a helicopter-sized boiler, which rages at 18-hundred degrees and will continue to do so for at least five to ten more years.
“We go through about 130 tons a day between the four boilers,” Tucker said.
In December 2006, Ball State President Jo Ann Gora was one of the first of the now 660 leaders to sign on to the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment, an agreement pushing campuses to become climate-neutral.
Tony Cortese, who monitors schools’ progress under the agreement, says American higher education must become a laboratory for climate neutrality, even though less than half of the schools who signed on have actually come up a plan to achieve neutrality.
“They’re basically saying we don’t know today how to become climate neutral. But we need to do this because it needs to be done for society. And if we don’t do it who in society is going to? I think society is banking on Ball State, even if Ball State were to fail, and it won’t,” Cortese said.
Even though 660 schools seems like a lot, signatories represent only 35 percent of the country’s college student population. And the agreement is non-binding and non-regulatory, leading some to suggest it doesn’t have the teeth necessary to push colleges to comply.
Cortese says his organization is counting on peer and public relations pressures to push schools toward the goal.
“Colleges are in the spot light whether they like it or not.”
That’s Bob Kuester. He’s runs the Center For Energy Research Education and Service.
“So the teeth then become peer pressure, the public spotlight, transparently sharing what you’re doing. And although shame is not necessarily the foundation of the approach there is that dimension lurking there. If you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, you’re going to be a little embarrassed, if nothing else,” Gora said.
President Gora says despite the project’s high price tag, disruption, and the risk associated with entering unknown territory with the scale of the project, she says the school’s project is still a practical model for others to cut emissions on a large scale.
“The idea of doing something that hadn’t been done before is a little scary. Our folks kept asking the question, ‘Can it work.’ You need to look beyond year one, year two, year five, year ten because your heating and cooling system, you expect it to last a lot longer than that,” Gora said.
Cortese says Ball State’s taking steps that will resonate as leaders around the world look to solve seemingly insurmountable issues looming on the horizon.
“Trying to find a way for 9 billion people by the year 2050 that will be on this planet to have good health, economic opportunity for everyone is the biggest that humanity has ever faced. And do it in a way that will sustain life on earth ad infinitum. And that’s what so significant about the actions at Ball State,” he said.
Kuester says no school, including Ball State, will be able to achieve complete climate neutrality on their own.
“Most schools are banking on the fact that they might make up their last 10 or 20 percent of obligation by purchasing renewable energy credits or carbon offsets,” Kuester said.
JC Randolf is with Center for Reaserch in Energy and the Environment. He says Ball State shows a good example, but it is just one school in one state in one country. He says experimentation will hopefully lead to viability for climate change fixes on a large scale.
Randolf says for schools to become climate neutral they’ll have to do more than switch from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. For Ball State, it’s only proven to be half the battle.