Ball State U. to Install Nation’s Largest Geothermal System

On Saturday Ball State University will fire up a drilling machine that will start the construction of the country’s largest geothermal system, which will provide heating and cooling to more than 40 buildings on campus. Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, will start the drill in the groundbreaking ceremony.

Ball State’s system, which will involve boring some 4,000 geothermal wells, is expected to cost around $65-million and save $2-million in energy costs per year. The system will also cut emissions at the university roughly in half — eliminating some 80,000 tons per year.

For the uninitiated, geothermal technology can be difficult to understand: In a geothermal system, fluid-filled pipes are installed underground, in wells that can be hundreds of feet deep. The pipes take advantage of the ground’s constant temperature (around 50 degrees) through a heat-exchange process. In the winter, the geothermal system pulls heat from the ground; in the summer, it pulls the heat out of the building and puts it in the ground. (In explaining geothermal technology to me some years ago, an expert compared the underground pipes to the warm coils on the back of a refrigerator, which pull the heat out of the fridge.)

The United States government has identified geothermal as an underutilized clean-energy technology in this country. Austria and Sweden lead the world in per capita geothermal installations. In Sweden, most heating is provided through geothermal, according to Jim Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, a leading geothermal organization that is located at Oklahoma State University.

One of the main barriers to geothermal installation is the up-front cost, which can be considerable. Nevertheless, in recent years, many colleges have installed systems — among them, Richard Stockton College, the University of Maine at Farmington, and some Oklahoma colleges.

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