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A College Campus Offers a Glimpse of a Geothermal Future

Ball State University is halfway through a project that will dramatically cut its campus carbon emissions and cities are taking notice

Ball State University

Officials from schools and towns all over the country have been traveling to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., to look at, well, nothing. The school is halfway through the construction of the largest geothermal district heating and cooling system in the country. By the time it’s done, the system will heat and cool the entire campus, completely replacing the university’s ancient coal-fired boilers, and it will serve as one of the best testaments yet to the promise that larger communities – even whole towns and one day cities – could go geothermal in the future as well.

For anyone who wants to travel to central Indiana to see all of this in action, though, the sight is somewhat less impressive than the technology beneath it.

“When universities call, or other entities call and want to come in and look at our system, I have to first tell them, ‘well, there’s not a whole lot you’re going to see except for the building where we have our heat pump chillers, because everything is buried,’” says Jim Lowe, the university’s director of engineering, construction and operations. “There’s nothing to see.”

By the time the project is completed – hopefully, with additional funding, in the next three years – Ball State will have drilled 4,000 holes into its campus, each 400 feet deep and six inches in diameter to thread closed-loop piping that circulates water underground, utilizing the earth itself as a natural heat exchanger. The first 1,800 boreholes were dug under an intramural sports field and a parking lot.

“Two years from now,” Lowe says, “a new student coming to campus, out there to play softball, may not know they’re playing softball above our geothermal field. You wouldn’t know that. It’s literally buried.”

This is basically the one requirement to replicate the project elsewhere, or on a larger scale: open space. Geothermal systems could heat and cool buildings and towns for years into the future, replacing fossil-fuel burning alternatives for a huge reduction in carbon emissions, but you can’t build on top of the underground infrastructure once it’s in place. At Ball State, that parking lot will indefinitely remain some kind of parking lot, and that rec field will likely forever be available for softball games.

Just about any community, though, with a sizable central park (or a scattering of protected open spaces) could attempt this. The system circulates water through the ground, but doesn’t draw on ground water, so the technology isn’t limited to places with ground water to spare.

At Ball State, the whole project is estimated to cost about $80 million – only about $10-$15 million more than the next generation of replacement boilers would have cost. When it finally comes together, the school will save $2 million a year on fuel and utility costs.

“And it’s a forever $2 million savings,” Lowe says.

The school will also wipe out the 85,000 annual tons of carbon dioxide its boilers were emitting, cutting its carbon footprint in half (and cutting out the need to ever comply with EPA regulations on coal-fired boilers again). To be fair, Lowe says, the geothermal system requires some electricity to run, so the net impact will be about 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide avoided. The completed project will heat and cool about 45 buildings, the first of which began to receive water from the system just after Thanksgiving.

“We’ve not found [a system] any larger,” Lowe says. “Will there be one in the future? That could be. That’s OK, because we hope others are learning from this.”

Even the city of Toronto, he says, has called.

“You could capitalize on the fact that you have some municipality that has a large rec field that’s for public use,” he says. “It’s only limited by the territory, by the amount of square footage you can find to install these boreholes.”

And we know most cities have underutilized land lying around that could be put to just this use.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.