Friday, February 10, 2012

Ball State University: Resurrecting Coal Alternatives from Six Feet Under

As a student, I can testify: classrooms are not cozy.

The rigorous academic setting is enough to stress out students regardless of how institutionalized or controlled the environment is. Coffee, cigarettes and subpar dining options wreck and distract our bodies enough. Some might feel that the least universities can do is regulate the classrooms at a reasonable temperature so students aren't pulling winter jackets on and off during class or distracting others by flashing their midriffs as they quickly tear off a hoodie while simultaneously asking a question, attempting to take notes and listen to the professor. We've got enough on our plate, the stress of our environmental impact doesn't need to be added to the list.

To pump heat out of a sweaty summer science lab or into a chilled communications classroom universities typically have to burn an equal amount of heat in coal. The environmental impacts of coal are diverse and plenty -- for a more in-depth list of these impacts see: EPA on coal.

But for Ball State University in Indiana, this will soon be a thing of the past. Ball state is officially "going geothermal" and breaking ground in efforts to build the nation's largest closed heating and cooling system that uses the ground they stand on as an energy source. Implementing a university-wide geothermal system is part of Ball State’s longtime commitment to sustainabilityIn a state where 95% of energy comes from coal and natural gas, this project has the potential to be a fulcrum of change that affects much more than the university.

A conventional heating/cooling system flows in one direction. 
Photo Credit:

Water is warmed or cooled in a central unit then piped into the various temperature controlled rooms where radiators or air-ducts push air over the pipes heating or cooling the room. Geothermal heat pumps, on the other hand, have the ability to transfer heat both to and from the temperature controlled room. These pumps use the Earth as their central source of heat in the winter and as a place for storing heat in the summer. Rather than producing heat, geothermal pumps transfer it.

Geothermal systems are made up of a network of pipes buried below the depth at which groundwater is expected to freeze, also known as the frost line. In Indiana, this means about six feet under ground. The proposed geothermal map for Ball State is pictured below:
Photo Credit: Ball State University

recent New York Times blog post quoted the director of engineering, construction and operation at Ball state, James W. Lowe, stating, "When you're heating or cooling, everything is about transferring energy." 

In the same way the warmth of your hand is transferred to melt an ice-cube or ice-cream cone, geothermal systems can transfer heat from a specific room into the ground (once a massive and expensive network is placed between them of course. Same idea, larger scale). Similarly, the same way your bare-feet may burn after coming in contact with hot sand or asphalt, these systems can heat a room.

The plan is the use the ground as a source of renewable energy. Unlike wind or solar, geothermal doesn't turn off and is not restricted by time/spacial constraints making it a promising investment. However, the initial cost of that investment is very high since geothermal pumps need to be built on site.

If you look at the map above the red, blue and yellow seem to disrupt a significant portion of the green and grey campus, but Jim Lowe claims in a video on Ball State's website that, "In a quick summary, you'll see nothing different that what you see today." Because most of the work is done underground, no one will be able to detect that they are on top of an intricate network of pipes or a borehole field. 

This is a borehole:

Photo Credit: Ball State
One of these boreholes could easily heat a house. To heat all of Ball State, you'll need 3,600 boreholes separated into "fields." Borehole fields are a series of closed cylinders that run vertically into the ground. Pipe pairs in the hole are joined with a U-Shaped connector at the bottom of the hole, allowing water to circulate through the sealed pipe. The boreholes are commonly filled with grout to provide a good thermal connection to the surrounding soil or rock to maximize the transfer of heat.

There is no direct interaction between the water in the system and the Earth, only heat transferred to the pipes via contact with the borehole and grout like your hand to your ice-cream or the sand to your toes. It's as if you could capture the body heat transferring amongst a huddle of people. Or if you're Uncle passed the heat, rather than the funk when reliving his glory-days. In colder areas, similar systems might require the use of an antifreeze. But Ball State’s closed loop system will only circulate freshwater. 

Installation will take several years and cost an estimated $75million. The new geothermal system will replace four decrepit boilers that are nearing the end of their usefulness. By taking these boilers offline, the university will be able to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emissions by a substantial amount-- about 85,000 tons annually.

Not only does the switch to geothermal cut Ball State's carbon footprint in half, it also saves the university  at least $2million per year in operating costs.

That would seem to imply a payback time of about 40 years. But two of the university’s four boilers date from 1940 and the another two are from 1955. The university priced out new boilers, which could have still burned coal but could potentially burn up to 30 percent wood or other biomass, but those would have cost $65 million to $70 million. So the additional cost involved in cycling energy into and out of the ground is at most $15 million. 

According to a broadcast on Indiana public radio Ball State has already raised more than half of the money required to go geothermal. 

What's so exciting about all of this is that it simply shows that it can be done. Large scale renewable energy sources can be realized. Ball State has become one of the few institutions to look past the initial cost of the first couple years and invest in a technology that will reward them in the long run while simultaneously initiating positive economic and environmental change, which Ball State is very excited about: 

"Economic Ball State will drill approximately 3,600 boreholes and construct two energy stations. The system will be American-made and built by U.S. contractors, many of them from Indiana.The impact of the project will be immediate. The project will provide several hundred contractors and suppliers employment and an opportunity for an estimated 2,300 direct and indirect jobs. Manufacturers supplying the project will be able to increase production and keep more workers on the job and out of the unemployment office.We find history repeating itself. The Ball brothers came to Muncie to reduce costs for their glass business by using “free” energy in the form of natural gas pulled from the ground. Now, the university they founded will save $2 million annually in operating costs by using a different form of “free” energy pulled from the same ground." 
"Environmental By taking the current, aging boilers offline, the university will be able to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it adds to the atmosphere by a substantial amount—about 85,000 tons annually. The net result of switching to the geothermal system will allow Ball State to cut its carbon footprint roughly in half.This project will also debunk the erroneous assumption that alternative energy projects are always too expensive or impractical to be adopted by cost-conscious businesses and consumers. The best ones, like Ball State’s geothermal energy system, are a boon to the economy as well as the environment." 
Quotes form Ball State Universities' "FAQ on Going Geothermal" 

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