Topics: Geothermal, Administrative, Sustainability/Environment

February 6, 2009

With today's Board of Trustees' action, Ball State University is poised to take a bold, new approach to meeting its campus heating and cooling needs through geothermal energy. During its regularly scheduled Feb. 6 meeting on campus, the university's Board of Trustees approved a proposal that sets in motion a phased replacement of the plant's four existing coal-fired stoker boilers through a complete transition of the university's central heating and cooling system to one employing geothermal fields and energy centers to service more than 40 buildings on campus.

"We face some critical challenges. Volatile availability and costs for fuel sources, a retracting economy and the likelihood of stricter air quality standards are just the start," said President Jo Ann M. Gora. "This decision reaffirms Ball State's leadership and commitment to meeting the challenges of the 21st century in an environmentally and fiscally responsible fashion. Once implemented, the reduction of energy costs will be a significant benefit for future budgets. 

"This is a historic day in the life of the university. We have been urged as a nation and as an institution to find innovative answers addressing our consumption of energy and the aftereffects of pollution and global warming. The board's dramatic step today reinforces not only our commitment to containing costs for students, but also our desire to be good stewards of tax dollars as well as the environment. A project of this scale is pioneering and will bring positive attention and interest to Indiana."

The project will be divided into phases.  Phase I will cost $36 million and will result in the shutting down of two coal stoker boilers and an annual operational savings in excess of $1 million.  The university will seek state approval to apply $41.8 million in existing funds for use in developing the geothermal system.  The funds were originally designated for coal-fired boiler replacement.

To complete Phase II, Ball State will use the balance of the $41.8 million, operational savings, and general and special repair and renovation funds. This phased conversion to geothermal would take place over a five to 10 year period, depending on the availability of funds over time. The total cost of the conversion over that period is estimated at $70 million. 

The university will actively pursue federal stimulus grants to contribute to the project and reduce its implementation schedule by many years.  This project matches very closely to the stated goals of the proposed stimulus package: Much of it qualifies as shovel-ready, uses renewable energy sources and reduces carbon emissions. 

With the assistance of Sen. Richard Lugar's office, university officials consulted with experts from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in conceptualizing the geothermal proposal. The next step was to engage geothermal design experts to produce a proof of concept based on Ball State's profile of heating and cooling needs and the results of a test borehole on campus. They were able to establish that heat pump chillers with the addition of geothermal storage are technologically feasible and would offer tremendous energy savings for Ball State. 

After review of the project plan, Richard Hayter, PhD, PE, former president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), wrote, "Not only will the proposed project significantly reduce operating costs, it will give international recognition to the university as a role model for adopting cutting-edge technology of a magnitude that is without equal … I am quite familiar with the engineering capabilities of one of the principal firms involved in the project and am confident that they are prepared to provide the engineering leadership to make this a success." 

Geothermal equipment has been available for several decades and has been used in both residential and commercial applications. According to a December 2008 report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 600,000 geothermal heat pumps have been installed in the United States.  The Department of Energy reports that, in 2006, about 64,000 geothermal heat pumps were shipped with 53 percent of the units going to residential and 47 percent to commercial applications. 

According to Tom Kinghorn, vice president of business affairs and treasurer, taking the current coal boilers offline will save the university a half-million dollars per boiler annually in operational costs, resulting in savings of $2 million a year when the project is completed. Just as important, eliminating the current 85,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually produced by the coal boilers will dramatically reduce Ball State's on-campus carbon footprint.  Even after considering its increased demand for electricity for the new system, the university's net carbon footprint will be cut approximately in half. 

Phase I of the project aims to take offline at least two of the boilers within the next three years, with the remaining boiler or boilers coming offline during Phase II. 

Meanwhile, planners are considering locations for the geothermal well fields on campus, where water will be circulated in a closed-loop piping system to a depth of roughly 400 feet before being returned to the surface and distributed through three energy centers, which will act as central heat exchangers. The system is currently estimated to require 3,750 boreholes.  The boreholes are not wells and do not use groundwater in any part of the process. Rather, water is introduced one time and recirculates throughout the system on a continuous basis. 

Much of the piping currently used in the central cooling system on campus will continue to work with the conversion to geothermal, Kinghorn said. New piping will be installed to distribute hot water throughout the system. Newly designed heat exchange interfaces also will be necessary. 

"There were other factors in the decision," Kinghorn said, explaining that a scarcity of would-be suppliers of replacement boilers plus spikes in construction and material costs since 2005 already had pushed the price tag of a conventional upgrade of the coal-fired boilers to almost $63 million. Kinghorn said, "Whereas the assembly of the boiler would have occurred offshore, all of the geothermal components and well drilling will put Americans to work." 

Room and board 

Also on the board's agenda was setting new room and board rates beginning with the upcoming fall semester.

On average, the university expects a 3.1 percent increase in rental revenue per room.  The standard room and board rate (double occupancy) will increase 4.4 percent, from the current $7,598 to $7,932 per year.  However, more than 2,000 students signed one of the university's "premium plan" contracts when they moved into the residence halls this current academic year and their rate will not increase.  Students residing in suites or certain residence halls such as Baker, DeHority, Klipple, North, Park and Studebaker West Halls will pay marginally more for their accommodations because they feature room layouts that include enhancements such as semi-private baths, air-conditioners, increased space and other amenities. 

While the rate increases are necessary to cover the rising costs of food and other commodities, the university has worked diligently to keep the percentage increase comparable with, or lower than, other universities.  Ball State students continue to enjoy attractive residence halls and dining facilities with the location, technology and amenities they demand. 

Honorary degree for Hartman 

The board members also approved the granting of an honorary doctor of arts degree to Ball State alumnus Craig Hartman during the university's annual spring graduation ceremonies in May. 

The youngest-ever recipient of the American Institute of Architects' Maybeck Award for "lifetime achievement," Hartman has earned worldwide renown and more than 50 other international honors for design for his works including the International Terminal at San Francisco Airport, the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Calif., and the American Embassy in Beijing. 

He is an active proponent of architectural education, serving as an invited lecturer and visiting critic at several universities including Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Rice University, Stanford University and Ball State. 

Founder of the Charles M. Sappenfield Distinguished Lecture Series at his alma mater, where he graduated from the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) in 1973, Hartman was named a CAP Distinguished Alumnus in 1998 and a Ball State University Distinguished Alumnus in 2001.