MUNCIE, Ind. -- On an unusually warm day on the campus of Ball State University, Jim Lowe is giving a tour of the campus's huge, half-completed geothermal system.
Lowe, the director of engineering, construction and operations for Ball State, peppers his explanation of closed-loop systems, chilling stations and boreholes with banter on college basketball games and the history of the school, founded by the makers of Ball canning jars.
"The irony is, they came here for the natural gas," said Lowe, of the university's founders' arrival to Indiana to take advantage of the fuel for glassmaking. "And now we're using it for renewable energy."
Ball State is building what will be in 2014 the largest district heating and cooling ground-sourced geothermal facility in the United States (ClimateWire, May 29, 2009). Completion of the first phase will allow the university to shut down two of its four coal-fired boilers, cutting carbon emissions in half.
The new system will avoid emitting approximately 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide, as well as 1,400 tons of sulfur dioxide, 240 tons of nitrogen oxide, 200 tons of particulate matter and 80 tons of carbon monoxide. The switch will save Ball State $2 million per year and shelter the university from U.S. EPA's upcoming Boiler MACT regulations for hazardous air pollutants.
Today, the university will announce the unveiling of the second phase of the project with recorded speeches from Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R) and a keynote speech by noted renewable energy advocate Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Other schools are interested
Geothermal systems generate energy thanks to the laws of thermodynamics: Thermal energy -- or heat -- will flow from higher-temperature to lower-temperature objects. In this case, water flows through vertical pipes running underground. In summer, the earth pulls heat out of the water. The resulting chilled water is used in air conditioning systems throughout campus. In the winter, the cold ground creates the opposite effect: It warms water for renewable heat and hot water systems.
The vertical, closed-loop district system -- meaning the warm and cool water it makes does not make contact with naturally occurring groundwater -- will connect nearly 3,600 boreholes, 500-foot narrow vertical wells with loops of pipes surrounded by grout. The boreholes cover 25 to 40 acres, buried under an old soccer field, parking lots and other green fields.
The first phase began in May 2009 and became operational last November. In the second phase, the university will install 780 boreholes of the remaining 1,800 and will build a new energy station with two 2,500-ton heat pump chillers and a hot-water loop around the south portion of campus. Eventually, the system will bring heat to more than 5.5 million square feet.
The system will provide air conditioning and heating for 47 buildings on campus.
"We just keep adding to the piping the system and expanding those loops," said Lowe of the simplicity of expansion.
The influence has expanded, as well, said Lowe. Representatives of 28 colleges and universities have come to see Ball State's system. Cornell University plans to build one on its Roosevelt Island campus by New York City. Even "hardcore coal" state universities like the University of Kentucky are looking to geothermal for their residence halls.
A group of representatives from Stanford University, which is investing $438 million to overhaul its utilities, came to Muncie recently to observe the building of the facility.
"Stanford is doing something along the similar lines," said Joe Stagner, director of sustainability and energy management at the university. "We're in a position make major changes to an existing systems [and] combine the best in economics and environmental stewardship."