Ball State Breaks Ground on Final Phase of the Nation’s Largest Geothermal Project

A graphic illustration of Ball State University’s geothermal piping map.

These days, much of the discussion on green technologies tends to focus on wind and solar projects and hybrid cars. But what about geothermal energy? Remember that? Despite its promise as an energy alternative, geothermal energy has remained somewhat underground (no pun intended..well, maybe just a little bit), perhaps largely due to the significant investments needed to put building plans in motion. But Ball State University, located in Muncie, Indiana, has decided to take on the challenge, and in turn make a name for itself as the proud owner of the country’s largest geothermal ground-source heat pump system.

Construction, which started in 2009, will reportedly continue through 2014 and will include a new District Energy Station containing two 2,500-ton heat pump chillers and a hot water loop around the south portion of campus. The system will then connect to all 47 buildings on campus, providing heating and cooling to 5.5 million square feet. Once the system is complete, the shift from fossil fuels to a renewable energy source will reduce the university’s carbon footprint by nearly half while saving $2 million a year in operating costs (Pitch Engine). And according to Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research, the project has also created over 2,300 jobs for the Muncie community–a number that stands out just as much as operating savings in the nation’s current economic climate. The project ultimately ties into the university’s other campus greening goals as outlined in its Greening of the Campus Conference Series Mission.

The man in charge of Phase 2 engineering, construction, and operations, Jim Lowe, described how the geothermal plan initially made it onto the table: “When costs began to escalate for the installation of a new fossil fuel burning boiler, the university began to evaluate other renewable energy options. This led to the decision to convert the campus to a more efficient geothermal-based heating and cooling system.”

So how exactly does this system work? Ball State is installing a vertical, closed-loop district system that uses only fresh water. The technology works off of the thermodynamic principle that heat moves from a source of higher temperature to a source of lower temperature, using the Earth’s ability to store heat in the ground depending on the season. A geothermal heat pump uses the Earth as either a heat source in heating mode, or a heat “sink” in cooling mode.

Ball State University emphasizes, “The system’s implementation demonstrates that geothermal energy coupled with ground source heat pump technology can be used on a large-scale district distribution system. Since ground-source geothermal energy can be used in every state, the environmental and economic implications have a national reach.” The project has inevitably caught the attention of universities and communities across the nation.

Even before this project, however, Ball State University displayed its commitment to sustainable causes by being one of only five other universities to submit voluntarily to the  Global Reporting Initiative. The reporting framework of GRI is meant to enable greater organizational transparency about a company or institution’s economic, environmental, social, and governance performance.

The only question for Ball State University that remains is, how is it going to top itself after this?

To see a video of the project’s progress, click here.

Last year’s GRI Sustainability Report for Ball State can be viewed here.

Photo courtesy of Ball State University.

Samantha is a graduate of Boston University with concentrations in English, Biology and Environmental Policy. After working in higher education textbook publishing for some time, she turned to the freelance writing world and now reports on corporate social responsibility, green technology and policy, and conservation for TriplePundit.

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