A few months ago, I heard about the largest geothermal heat pump installation was breaking ground at Ball State University. Clearly, this is amazing project that could change the whole industry. Also, I always noticed PR for huge solar PV projects and knew that we needed to get out the world about ground source. So, I wrote an article in Climate Progress about the project.

Jo Ann Gora, the president of Ball State University, reached out to Joe Romm, the editor of Climate Progress to thank him for the piece and he forward it to me.

I reached out Ms. Gora wanting to understand more intimately how the decisions was made within Ball State to under take such a large project that a huge accomplishment on so many levels. I wanted to learn a few things

  1.  I wanted to understand their buying process and internal decision making. As an industry, if we can start to understand how large institutions, like Ball State, invest ~60 million dollars into geothermal, we’ll be able to sell more projects.
  2. I wanted to understand if there were any issues that almost killed the project within Ball State.
  3. Lastly, I wanted to learn what they learned about the technology and if there were any technical bottlenecks that almost killed the project.

I spoke with Ms. Gora for about 20 minutes, I also spoke with Jim Lowe who is the Director of Enginneering, Construction and Operations at Ball State.

Here’s my conversation with Ms. Gora

Q: What was the inspiration behind the project? Was someone pushing it within the university or was it advised to your by an outside engineering firm?

A: It’s a really great story. In December of 2005, our board approved the purchased of boiler equipment and to sell bonds to finance the project. So, we were going with a traditional system and we had received authority to release bonds to replace our existing equipment.

We were going down this route and what we discovered, when we completed the sale of the bond, 2 years later, is that prices for the original equipment had gone through the roof. We no longer had enough money. Also, due to the size of the project, we were going to have to buy the parts from outside the US. We were getting a hard time getting bids and we didn’t think we could get a competitive price. So, it forced us to ask ourselves if there was alternative and better way.

We’re a university and we figured we’re going to be around for another 100 years, so we started talking to a lot of people about alternatives, something that would be really sustainable.

Being aware that fuel prices are volatile, that the push for energy efficiency was really, and not liking the idea of spending the money outside of the US, we started asking ourselves internally if there is a better way.

We turned to our Senator, and he arranged a call with NREL and Oakridge Laboratory and they put us in touch with top geothermal experts. They told us that only recently had the technology matured to a point where you could heat and cooling many buildings, and not just one.

It was the change and development in geothermal technology that said “it’s possible” that made us confidence to apply geothermal to our district heating and cooling system. So, we continued to do research with help from NREL and Oakridge.

During this time, we also started talking with our board of trustees. This is a sensitive subject in Indiana because we’re a coal producing state. When we started introducing the subject as something that was more energy efficiency that will save money in the long run, more efficiency, sustainable and carbon foot print, and we wanted to install something that was produced within the US.

We would be the largest, and the first and could we be an example for how to drive down installations costs.

Question: I noticed that you’re doing workshops and tours of the project to show the public, geothermal companies and other institutions to tour the facility. 

Answer: We’ve shown the project to 40 different entities from Standford, Dartmouth, Germany and Japan and we’ve provided day long tours to teach them about the project.

Question: How did the tours start? Did you open up your doors or did people start calling? Do you think this project is going to be catalyst for more geothermal projects at institutions?

People started contacting us because of the publicity were getting. New York Times, NPR, a lot of national outlets made people recognize and they wanted to learn what and how we were doing the project. So, we started explaining what we’re doing to them and the science behind it.

There are 65,000 other district building in the US that can do what we’re doing, adopt geothermal and reduce first costs. Hospital, military bases, colleges any organizations that has multiple building on the same property can learn from what we’ve done. Also, those organizations tend to be one that don’t go out of business and that are going to be around for the long term.

Question: Lastly, I’m curious, based on your experience, what is your advice for the geothermal industry at large and companies that are trying to sell to institutions like yours. Let’s say I’m a well driller in Massachusetts, what should I do and say to sell a university?

Answer: I have two pieces of advice. The first thing that came up is efficiency. The fact that were were going to save $2 million per year in operational savings was huge. We were going to reduce the impact of fuel cost volatility.

Secondly, reduce carbon footprint and air polutants. We’ve always had a very strong environemtnal precense so it was very important for our students, alumni and teachers. There is nothing that we could have done on campus, from an energy perspective that will have impact that geothermal will.

You can get more impact by changing district heating then changing anything else. We have other programs in terms of cars, recycling, lighting, but nothing has the scale and impact of how you heat and cool buildings.

If you dramatically change how you heat, you’ll make dramatically change your footprint. I’m one of the 12 founding members of presidents climate commitment, it started with 12, it’s now over 700. It’s hard to move these numbers unless you do something big.

We need a national energy policy that rewards institutions that take visionary steps where the impact is long term. It’s a long term fix and there aren’t reward systems for our energy policy that recognize long term fixes. But long terms fixes are how you’re going to move large institutions. This impacts our operating costs, but also our students, alumni, professionals and the whole generation of students that will learn the right way to do things.

Question: Do you see what you have done starting to spread rapidly within colleges?

A: We have a tremendous amount of research about what we’ve done, how the technology is working, and the impact on our bottom line and the environment.

The sad thing is that there is not a lot of interest from the federal government in backing tried and true technologies that are being applied in a different way. They want glitsy, high risk stuff but massive organizations want low risk.

Question: I like the point about tried and true technology and it’s something that we’ve had issues with within the geothermal industry. People think they need to take a leap of faith with geothermal but they don’t, it’s a tried and true technology.  

A: That’s what our board asked us, and we had to prove to them that it could work and it has worked. We did the work to make sure it wasn’t a risk and now we’re seeing that it’s not a risk. We did the research and I’m proud of our team and the work that they did.

Talking with Jim Low about more of the technical details to understand what they’re learned about reducing installed costs, any issues they have to overcome and how they integrated it with the existing HVAC system. 

Jim was responsible for the technical details of the project, so I spoke with him to learn more about any technical issues that they have to overcome, and how they overcame them. Jim had some great learnings about decreased drilling costs, and how they tested their existing HVAC system to make sure it was compatible with geothermal.

Question: What did you learn about drilling the bores that allowed you to decreased installed costs?

A: The first 1,800 boreholes installed were double loops, 400 feet deep, and a .69 Btu/hr-ft-degree F grout design. The drilling companies encountered an increase in labor time and risk inserting the two loops with the double loop arrangement. The spacing of the boreholes is 15 feet on center. The installation of the geothermal boreholes is the largest cost component when converting to geothermal. Therefore finding ways to reduce the borehole installation cost while achieving the same thermal capacity increases the economic feasibility of converting to geothermal. The boreholes currently under construction were bid as single loop, 500 feet deep, and a 1.2 Btu/hr-ft-degree F grout design. The drilling companies were given the option to use the double loop design and  retain the 15 feet spacing. The drillers chose the single loop design. The single loop design kept our installation costs to a minimum.

Our available green space limited us to the 15 feet spacing. We believe that if the spacing could have been increased to 20 feet the risk of crossing over boreholes would be reduced which would also result in reducing installation costs.

Question: What strategies would you recommend other institutions adopted when designing and drilling such a large number of bores?

A: Ball Sate conducted a 2-D resistivity test on the drill site. This procedure begins with inducing a current into the ground and subsequently measuring the resistant to current flow. This measured resistant to current flow can then be matched to the geological material below the surface. A 2D cross section was then produced and included in the bid documents much the same way boring samples are provided on building projects. This information provides the bidder an opportunity to account for such drilling costs as the type of bit to use prior to submitting their bids.

Question: What obstacles did you face and have to overcome when integrating geothermal into the existing HVAC systems?

All heating systems such as finned tube radiation and or water to air heating and cooling units have coils designed to a specific hot water reset temperature. In some buildings on the Ball State campus the maximum reset hot water temperature was as high as 180 degree F. The heat pump chillers that are used on the Ball State geothermal system produce a maximum of 150 degree F hot water.

The first step taken by Ball State prior to final design and construction was to reduce the reset maximum temperature to 150 degrees F in all buildings. The building temperatures and occupant comfort was monitored for one full winter. The majority of the buildings operated with no heating deficiency. In a few buildings the hot water coil and chilled water coil were connected as a  precaution.. A temperature control valve will open allowing hot water to flow through the chilled water coil increasing heating capacity if needed.

The steam to water heat exchangers are retained in the new geothermal arrangement. If the exterior temperature drops to an extreme low the steam to water heat exchangers can be used to boost the temperature of the hot water hydronic loop.

Question: Again, what would you recommend to other institutions looking to test their existing HVAC systems when considering geothermal for large district heating applications?

The first step is to accumulate building equipment schedules for all buildings. This information is needed to assist in sizing the geothermal system. Actual historical total and peak steam/chilled water production information is also needed to properly size the borehole field and the heat pump chiller capacity.

What can be learned from Ball State?

  • From a sales perspective. It was very clear that an outside company did not sell Ball State on geothermal, something happened within the university that made them start to research other technologies. What does this mean? It means that it might be a waste of time to try and actively sell to institutions, however, when institutions start asking questions (which shows their researching the technology) be ready the answer and be confident.
  • Testing an institutions is pretty easy. 2d testing and reducing the set point to 150 on the existing HVAC equipment will give very accurate information about the ease of integrating geothermal with existing technologie