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Ball State Starts Final Phase of Creating Nation's Largest Geothermal System

In the shadow of two outdated smokestacks and four antiquated coal-fired boilers, Muncie, IN-based Ball State University has started the second and final phase of converting the campus to a geothermal ground-source heat-pump system—the largest project of its kind in the United States.

The conversion, started in 2009 to replace the coal boilers, now provides heating and cooling to nearly half the campus. This phase of the project was dedicated in March.

When 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. When the system is fully operational, it will heat and cool 47 buildings.

Ball State is installing a vertical, closed-loop district system that uses only fresh water. The system uses the Earth's ability to store heat in the ground and water thermal masses. A geothermal heat pump uses the Earth as either a heat source, when operating in heating mode, or a heat sink, when operating in cooling mode.

Water heated by the Earth began flowing through a new geothermal district heating and cooling system in spring. The project provides several hundred contractors and suppliers employment and an opportunity for an estimated 2,300 direct and indirect jobs, according to a study conducted by Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

To create the system, Ball State is drilling approximately 3,600 boreholes in borehole fields around campus, which will not be seen after construction is complete. During Phase 1, 1,800 boreholes were drilled and an additional 1,800 will be drilled throughout Phase 2. Each borehole will be covered and the area restored to its previous use, retaining campus beauty. 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.

Under the direction of Jim Lowe, Director of Engineering, Construction and Operations, work has begun on Phase 2, which includes installation of 780 of the remaining 1,800 boreholes in a field on the south area of campus.

Construction will continue throughout 2013–2014 and will include a new District Energy Station South 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 buildings on campus—eventually providing heating and cooling to 5.5 million sq ft.

“When costs began to escalate for the installation of a new fossil-fuel-burning boiler, the university began to evaluate other renewable energy options,” Lowe says. “This led to the decision to convert the campus to a more efficient geothermal-based heating and cooling system.”

Two energy stations will house large-capacity heat-pump chillers to move water through the system. The North District Energy Station was built in 2011. The other will be housed within the current Central Chilling Plant. The buildings were not constructed on the borehole fields. When the project is complete, the four existing boilers will be removed.

Modest changes will be made inside campus buildings, involving mostly upgrades to current systems and installations of new piping for the hot-water system, which will be connected to the district hot-water loop. A newly designed heat-exchange interface will be necessary for each building. Upgrades will be made to the electrical distributions systems to ensure reliability.

Ball State's geothermal system was funded with assistance from federal and state governments. The U.S. Department of Energy provided a grant of $5 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Indiana General Assembly authorized nearly $45 million in state capital funding.

Geothermal Project: By the Numbers

  • Estimated 2,300 jobs created (direct and indirect)
  • $2 million operating costs saved annually by the university
  • 85,000 tons carbon dioxide reduction into the atmosphere
  • Nearly 50% reduction of university’s carbon footprint
  • 3,600 boreholes
  • 1,000 miles of loop field pipe
  • 10 miles of buried distribution pipe
  • 650% increase in system efficiency
  • 47 buildings to use geothermal
  • 5.5 million sq ft of heated and cooled space
  • 63 years average age of coal-fired boilers

The project has caught the attention of universities and communities across the nation. Lowe is sharing information about the university's new operation with others who want learn how they, too, can benefit from a geothermal system.

For more information, visit or contact Jim Lowe at 765-285-2805 or To learn more about geothermal energy, click here.

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