Sen. Lugar leads off country's largest geothermal energy project

Topics: Administrative, Geothermal, President, Sustainability/Environment

May 8, 2009

Calling it "a bold endeavor" with significant consequences for the energy future of Indiana and the nation, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) initiated work on the country's largest geothermal energy project May 9 on the Ball State University campus.

Joined by President Jo Ann M. Gora and in the company of members of the Ball State Board of Trustees, local government leaders and other invited dignitaries and friends of the university, Lugar pushed the button activating a large drilling machine that carved out several feet of the first of up to 4,000 boreholes at the heart of the planned system.

Within a decade, the university expects to heat and cool via geothermal means more than 40 buildings on its 660-acre campus, realizing significant annual energy savings and cutting carbon emissions by approximately 80,000 tons per year.

Lugar, long a proponent of greater U.S. energy efficiency and independence, was on hand for the unusual groundbreaking by virtue of his presence as the principal speaker at Ball State's 155th Commencement exercises conducted earlier in the morning on Old Quad. In addition to conferring degrees upon approximately 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students at the annual spring ceremony, Gora presented Indiana's senior senator — after 32 years on Capitol Hill now the ranking Republican in the Senate — with the President's Medal of Distinction, one of the two highest honors the university can bestow. Lugar, a former Rhodes Scholar, also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Ball State in 1986.

"Innovative technologies will only take hold and produce more jobs if consumers and investors believe in them.  People have to see that the technology works and that it can save them money," said Lugar, citing a recent study by the Department of Energy that suggests aggressive deployment of geothermal technology could save Americans as much as $38 billion by 2030, just a generation from now.

"This campus is making an extraordinary contribution to demonstrating the viability of geothermal technology. In the coming years, it will be swarmed with scientists, engineers, tradesmen, investors, and students anxious to learn from your experience."

Leading the way

To be implemented in stages, the geothermal system eventually will replace Ball State's four aging, coal-fired stoker boilers, slashing the university's energy costs by some $2 million annually while reducing its overall carbon footprint by roughly half.

The price of the project is estimated at $65 million to $70 million. Yet, as a result of the current economic climate, university officials anticipate a highly competitive bid process that could result in a highly favorable final cost.

"At the beginning of this academic year, we launched with great fanfare our new capital campaign, Ball State Bold," reflected Gora. "With help from Sen. Lugar, we conclude the year in similar, exciting fashion, and prove once again that the university's innovative and entrepreneurial thinking is more than mere words.

"The spirit that drives us to pioneer new ways of learning in higher education and explore blossoming technologies is the same that drives us to lead the way in demonstrating that geothermal energy is an economically viable and environmentally advantageous energy source of the future."

With memories of $147 per barrel oil and price spikes for other fuel sources such as coal fresh in their minds, members of the university's Board of Trustees approved the geothermal alternative in February. Key among the factors influencing that historic decision were early efforts by Lugar and his staff to put campus officials in contact with geothermal experts from Oak Ridge National Laboratory as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), who confirmed that such a system is both feasible and, over the long term, cost effective.

Already receiving inquiries

With worldwide energy demand expected to rise by as much as 20 percent (U.S. demand by as much as 30 percent) within the next few decades, Lugar has warned that "in the absence of revolutionary changes in energy policy" we also risk "multiple hazards for our country that could constrain living standards, undermine our foreign policy and leave us highly vulnerable to economic and political disaster."

However, he also cites the more positive news of fresh research indicating that the growth rate in worldwide energy consumption could be cut in half over the next 15 years if households, commercial enterprises and industry take aggressive energy efficiency actions.

And already the university is receiving inquiries from other institutions across the country interested in its geothermal initiative, reports Jim Lowe, director of engineering and operations, who is heading up Ball State's project.

"This provides a great opportunity for us to show the U.S. that this works, that you can install a large system of this nature and with that, the fear factor is gone," said Lowe.

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