For every one of the 3,600 boreholes consisting of 1,000 miles of geothermal piping, Jim Lowe inspected and monitored testing at each site, in his ongoing quest to construct an energy system that has not been built on a scale this size.

To keep a clear mind, Lowe would lace up his running shoes, and go in search of perspective. An open road often provided just the view that the associate vice president for facilities and planning and management needed when he and others began considering ways to replace an aging and increasingly unreliable coal-fired boiler heating system. That was especially true when the idea the group kept coming back to, while not untested, was certainly untried at the scope they were considering.

Because before Ball State University started it in July 2009, nobody had built a geothermal energy system the size of what Lowe’s team was proposing.

Jim Lowe opens the view port of a coal-fired boiler that was shut down in March 2014.

Lowe opens the view port of a coal-fired boiler that was shut down in March 2014. The view port, now a relic, is designed to offer a glimpse of a flame or burning coal. (Photo by Domenic Centofanti)

Experts said it couldn’t be done

It says something that when two highly regarded engineers who literally study and design geothermal energy systems told Lowe that they were uncertain that a system this large would be feasible and efficient, Lowe didn’t believe them. To his way of thinking, it wasn’t impossible. It just wasn’t going to be easy.

Briefly, a geothermal system uses the earth’s ability to store heat in the ground. A geothermal heat pump uses the earth as either a heat source, when operating in heating mode, or place to release excess heat, when operating in cooling mode.

So what the Ball State team had to do was find some folks willing to help solve the puzzle. Enter MEP Associates, an engineering firm with offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin that specializes in energy solutions. While eager to be part of the plan, Mike Luster, mechanical engineer and project manager for the Ball State project, concedes there were times an answer wasn’t always immediately clear.

“If I had a dollar for every time I said, ‘I’ve never seen that before’ on the Ball State project, I could retire,” Luster said. “Jim and Ball State were ready to be out there setting a trend, and while there were a lot of things that came up that we had to work through, ultimately you have to believe in the calculations.”

Luster said the proof comes now, not just in the reduced carbon footprint and the more than $2 million that Ball State is saving annually on energy costs, but in the fact that private businesses are following the university’s lead.

Jim Lowe explain how Ball State's geothermal system works to a group of students during a class tour.

Lowe is seen explaining how Ball State’s geothermal system works to a group of students during a class tour, a routine he has performed frequently. (Ball State photo)

“We’re currently doing (a geothermal project) at the Ford Motor Company world headquarters. That to me is the signal that this is taking off.

“You can tell when a legacy is taking hold, when it starts to become mainstream, and Ball State was a huge part of that.”

Project draws visitors near, far

The final stages of the $83 million project, funded through state appropriations and federal grants, will wrap up in spring 2017 and not surprisingly, Lowe’s looking forward to the end. The system, which experts at the U.S. Department of Energy and elsewhere say may be the largest of its kind in use at a public institution, draws its share of attention. Visitors from Germany, Iceland, Japan and South Korea, and other universities and groups throughout the U.S. have toured the north and south district energy stations, to learn more about the project and take home ideas for their own plans.

The university has won dozens of energy pioneer awards, and Lowe’s proud of what the school has accomplished. But there’s a greater mission, too, that’s always fueled Lowe — the responsibility of the choice. Because one way or another, Ball State needed a new heating system.

“There’s a responsibility to those who are here today, our students and faculty, our alumni and lawmakers. We have to make good choices that are mindful of their investment in us,” Lowe said. “Then there’s that responsibility to the future, those future generations.

Informational graphic detailing Ball State's geothermal project, which has 3,600 boreholes, 5.5 million square feet of total heating/cooling space, 5,280,000 feet of piping across 47 buildings.

(Graphic by Beth Brooks)

“Geothermal was by far the best approach — financially and environmentally. It was simply right to do.”