Geothermal work pays off for Ball State

Ball State University's plan to heat its campus with geothermal energy, the first project of its scale in the country, earned the university a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy on Thursday.

"We're very grateful, especially for the help we've received from our federal congressmen and senators," Philip Sachtleben, associate vice president for governmental affairs at Ball State, said.

Sachtleben said the grant, which is part of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, is for ground source heating. Ball State was one of three schools in the country to receive the maximum $5 million, he said. Criteria for the grant included innovativeness, project management and allotment of responsibilities.

"Because we got the maximum grant, we must have been pretty close to exactly what they wanted," Sachtleben said.

Jim Lowe, director of engineering and operations, said the geothermal project is new and original because Ball State will be using a renewable energy source, while coupling it with chillers, to meet heating and cooling needs on campus.

"We're getting every bit of value out of our input, and I find that to be innovative," Lowe said. "It's an innovative move to use energy sources to its maximum potential, therefore reducing our carbon footprint and utility costs."

Ball State currently gets its energy from four boilers that burn coal to make steam, Sachtleben said. The state initially gave Ball State $41 million to replace the coal boilers, which are more than 50 years old, with a more modern and efficient system. But once the system was designed, he said the university could not find a company that would build it at that price point. That's when Ball State decided to incorporate geothermal energy and got permission from the state to use the $41 million for the new project.

In addition to the state money, Sachtleben said the $5 million grant ensures the university will have enough money to finish phase one of the geothermal project.

Phase one includes construction of more than 1,800 boreholes, two heat pump chillers, underground pipes that will move energy to each campus building and the pipe connections within the buildings on the north side of campus, Sachtleben said.

He said it's difficult to estimate how much phase one of the project will cost, but he knows Ball State will have some money left over. So far, the only cost estimate the university has is for the boreholes, which he said would be $13.1 million.

Sachtleben said he hopes to use the new grant money to pay for the underground pipes, but how the money is spent will ultimately be negotiated between Ball State and theDepartment of Energy.

Lowe said Ball State is on schedule to finish phase one by Fall Semester 2011.

"Everything seems to be moving well," Lowe said.

Sachtleben said Ball State has also applied for a second grant of about $40 million from the federal government. The grant is for district energy systems that utilize alternative energy, such as geothermal power. He said district energy systems are central heating and cooling plans that serve multiple buildings — or a campus in Ball State's case.

Ball State needs the grant, or an equivalent source of funding, to complete the entire geothermal project within its goal of four years, he said.

But if the university does not get the $40 million, Sachtleben said Ball State would still be able to complete the project with the money it will save by finishing the first phase of construction.

Ball State spends an average of $3 million to $3.2 million per year on coal energy, he said.

The geothermal system will not burn fuel or natural gas, but will require electricity. Depending on the size of the pumps and how long they will be running, Sachtleben said electricity will cost the university about $1 million per year. Once phase one is complete, he said the university would be able to turn off two of its coal burners and heat the north part of campus with geothermal energy.

He said he expects the second grant to be announced by December.


  • Current system: Ball State spends an average of $3 million to $3.2 million per year on coal energy.
  • Geothermal system: The electricity needed to power the geothermal system will cost $1 million per year.
  • Total savings: Approximately $1 to $2 million annually

Phase one

  • Cost so far: 1,800 boreholes for $13.1 million
  • Funding: $41 million from state legislature and a $5 million grant from U.S. Department of Energy
  • Stage: Construction crews are drilling boreholes on the north side of campus. The expected completion date is Fall Semester 2011.



More from The Daily

This Week's Digital Issue