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January 13, 2012

Getting the Ball Rolling With Geothermal Energy

Ball St. U Geothermal EnergyWhen Ball State University found out a few years ago that replacing the school's coal boilers would cost $50 million, it went back to the drawing board.

Now the Indiana school is inching closer to completing the country's largest geothermal system, an $80-million endeavor that will save the school $2 million a year in utility costs and put an end to 85,000 annual tons of carbon emissions from its boilers.

"The completed project will heat and cool about 45 buildings, the first of which began to receive water from the system just after Thanksgiving," reports The Atlantic. Building the system has required some gutting of the campus: a total of 4,000 holes, "each 400 feet deep and six inches in diameter to thread closed-loop piping that circulates water underground, utilizing the earth itself as a natural heat exchanger." The article goes on to state that representatives from universities and municipalities from all corners of the country have contacted Ball State to learn more.

The school hopes the system will be completed in three years. If it all goes as planned, this could be a model for advocates of large-scale geothermal. It might even land the school on Sierra magazine's annual rankings of Cool Schools.

Not only is this a win for Ball State, it's a big boost for a nascent energy industry that has an extreme amount of potential. Late last year, a study found that geothermal energy -- buoyed by its improving technology -- could someday produce ten times the energy of the installed capacity of U.S. coal. That's an insane amount of potential. And it represents yet another avenue for the growing clean-energy economy and jobs.

Geothermal energy is a small fraction of today's clean-energy sector and it's a very long way from matching coal. But large-scale geothermal projects have to start somewhere, and that somewhere might be Ball State.

-- Brian Foley/image courtesy Ball State University

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