Before I began working on my book about renewable energy, I had no idea what geothermal energy was. If I’d had to guess, I probably would have muttered something about hot spring or maybe volcanoes.
A few months into my project, I’m still mostly in the dark about the ins and outs of geothermal, but my eyes have been opened, thanks largely to a trip I made last Monday to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where engineers and drillers and workers are busy installing what is currently the largest closed-loop geothermal heat exchange system in the US, and maybe in the world.
I won’t get too deep into the technical details, mainly because I still don’t completely understand them. But here’s the basic story …
About ten years ago, the university brass realized that the four coal-fired boilers in the campus heating/cooling plant were on their last legs. Indiana is a major coal state, so the first thought was to replace the four boilers with a brand new, state-of-the-art, ten-story coal boiler. But that turned out to be too expensive. So, looking for other option, BSU planners and engineers considered geothermal. And, much to their surprise, after working with a geothermal consulting company in Minnesota, it turned out to be the most efficient, cost-effective solution.
University administrators got on board, as did state and federal politicians, and this past May the university drilled the first of what will eventually by more than 4000 “bore holes,” or wells.
Now, again, in my limited understanding of geothermal power, I’d assumed that for geothermal to work you need access to some serious underground heat, like in Yellowstone or in northern California. So I was really surprised when I heard about the Ball State project. As far as i knew, there were no hot springs or volcanoes in north-central Indiana.
And, of course, there aren’t. But as I learned, not all geothermal systems work like that. Again, I don’t want to spend too much time here trying to describe how the BSU system does work. You can read about that on the BSU geothermal website.
But what I like about this story are two basic facts: 1) that BSU embarked on the geothermal project not to make a statement about going green but because it was the best financial option, and 2) that once completed, the BSU project will stand as an example of how this type of geothermal system can happen pretty much anywhere–even in a die-hard coal state like Indiana.