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."

Stagner said that Stanford's system will be different in the way it will provide both warmth and cooling in the same season -- unlike Ball State, which will need a lot of heat in the winter and a lot of cooling in the summer. By recycling waste heat in the system, the university will reduce energy use by 70 percent.

"For us, in a milder climate, we have a tremendous amount of waste heat," he said. "Let's go ahead and reuse that."

Universities, especially suburban or rural ones, make good settings for renewable energy projects, said Robert Bell, project architect for the geothermal conversion of two residence halls at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio -- the two oldest buildings on campus.

A learning experience for undergraduates
The largest field of boreholes is next to the brick smokestacks of two of the coal-fired boilers that were installed in 1944. Two more were added 11 years later, as the campus expanded after World War II. It wasn't until about 50 years later, two decades after EPA began establishing regulations for emissions from coal-fired power plants, that the university began to evaluate the condition and remaining life of the boilers.

In the 2005 to 2007 biennium, the Indiana State General Assembly granted the university nearly $45 million for a circulating fluidized bed boiler to co-fire 30 percent biomass with 70 percent coal. Ball State found itself in a financial predicament: The boiler cost $20 million to $25 million more than what was appropriated. Although the capital cost of the geothermal project was higher, it provided $2 million in savings.

So Lowe and his colleagues began to look into alternatives. Although Indiana is not located in a prime location for geothermal energy (most of the potential is in the western United States), the technology has existed since the 1940s. Then there was the matter that EPA had begun crafting its Boiler MACT regulations for 187 different hazardous air pollutants.

"We thought, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to build those [pollution controls]?" he said.

Outside of Ball State's own commitments to invest, funding for the second phase is still unclear, said Lowe. There have been no donors or foundation support at this point.

"We'd hope that the U.S. DOE would continue [to support] this type of opportunity," he said. Last year, federal money stopped flowing to the project. The university will have to look to Indiana or internally but will continue to search for federal grants and donors, Lowe said.

In the meantime, the system is a learning project. Geology students monitor the ground temperature for class projects. The university has engaged several other departments on campus -- from construction management to architecture -- to use the system for student theses. The fields with all the holes are also used to recruit new students.

"It's another thing that makes them happy to have come to Ball State University," added Lowe. "It's their world in about 20, 30 years."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500