Construction of the Largest U.S. Geothermal Heat Pump System Underway

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"Construction of the Largest U.S. Geothermal Heat Pump System Underway"

A groundbreaking geothermal heating and cooling project shows that these super-efficient heat pumps are gaining traction

Construction of the Ball State University geothermal project is underway

by Christopher Williams

Construction of the largest ground-source geothermal heating and cooling system in the United States is now underway and half complete.

The project, located on the Muncie, Indiana campus of Ball State University, will be large enough to heat and cool 47 buildings, replace four coal-fired boilers, and save the campus roughly $2 million a year over the 30-year life of the system.

The project will also help create 2,300 direct and indirect jobs throughout the construction period.

This is great news for a technology that has been available, efficient and economical since the 1940’s. In 1993, the EPA called it “the most efficient, environmentally clean, and cost effective space conditioning system today.” While the technology has been known for decades, the size of the Ball State project proves that geothermal installers and designers are gaining confidence to implement the technology on a massive scale and are winning the trust of risk-averse property owners.

The role of ground source heat pumps in the U.S.

Geothermal, or ground source heat pumps, can play a critical role in changing the U.S. energy mix by reducing the use of petroleum, coal and gas for on-site heating and cooling applications. The technologies we tend to think of when we use the term “renewable energy” — solar PV, wind, and hydro — usually do nothing to address thermal energy, which makes up roughly one third of our nation’s energy use.

For example, space heating represents 45% of energy use in the average single-family home in the U.S. — by far the single biggest use of energy for consumers. But consumers tend to think mostly about renewable electricity technologies, rather than heating and cooling technologies. Geothermal heat pumps can eliminate the need for on-site fossil fuel use for the heating of a property, particularly in the Northeast, where fuel oil is used to heat a large percentage of buildings.

The state of the geothermal heat pump industry

“Geothermal heat pump technology has grown to a point where people are beginning to understand what it is, what it offers in terms of benefits over conventional systems and that it can be successfully implemented at all levels, from the smallest single family residence to the large-scale retrofit at Ball State,” says Ryan Carda a geothermal engineering expert who co-founded Geo-Connections and who co-authored the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA) manual on geothermal design and installation.

The numbers back up Carda’s comments. Pike Research projects that the industry will double from 2010 to 2017, with the technology also making solid gains in the utility sector.

The U.S. geothermal heat pump industry has seen strong growth when compared to the broader economy. With a 30% federal investment tax credit until 2016, and the ability to install projects outside of the regulatory authority of the utility (unlike most solar PV systems), adoption rates continue to increase.

As Carda points out, educated contractors are also helping grow the market: “I believe that education at all levels is one thing that can help this technology take the next step.  Building owners need to understand what geothermal can do for them in terms of energy consumption, operating and maintenance costs, overall comfort levels, etc.  It all starts with contractors, architects and engineers as they are the ones who need to relay that message [to property owners].”

The Importance of the Ball State Geothermal Project

The Ball State University project is enormously important for raising awareness about this under-reported technology.

With both Republican and Democratic lawmakers hailing the project, it’s a small glimmer of hope for bipartisanship on energy. It also shows how sophisticated the engineering and construction practices in the geothermal heat pump market have become. And finally, the media attention — from stories in the Environmental Leader, the New York Times, and Indiana National Public Radio — give the industry the attention it deserves.

Chris Williams is an IGSHPA Certified Geothermal Installer and Chief Marketing Officer at HeatSpring Learning Institute. If you’re interested in learning how more about how geothermal heat pumps work, you can download free “Geothermal Survival Kit.”

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14 Responses to Construction of the Largest U.S. Geothermal Heat Pump System Underway

  1. SteveW says:

    Check your spelling for MunCie, Indiana. Otherwise, great story.

  2. Mike says:

    It must be a left wing plot! Oh wait, Indiana has a Republican governor and legislature.

  3. Andrew Hammer says:

    Fantastic story! Thanks for covering our hometown. (We’ll forgive the misspelling.) Ball State is doing a geat thing here, especially in a state where coal is still king.

  4. Chris says:

    Mike,

    True! To be honest, most geothermal guys are republicans. They deal with pretty hardcore trades, drillers, HVAC, electricians, and I’ve always noticed a leaning to the right.

    Regarding spelling, I’ll have to blame my editor :)

    Chris

    • Jeff says:

      We do tend to lean to the right. Unlike many other “green” technologies, geothermal is competitive and pays for itself without the need for a government mandate or taxpayer dollars. And it is a cost effective solution that can save taxpayer dollars over the long term when used in government buildings.

  5. Mark says:

    I have lived in three different cities doing decades-long “SEWER SEPARATION” projects. I’ve often wondered if they could install geothermal systems for the buildings along the streets at the same time?

    • Jeff says:

      Not under public streets. Private utilities have to be on private property.

      • Mark says:

        (A) Who says it has to be run by a private utility?

        (B) Even if it is, public lands are used for private purposes all the time. Why should this particular purpose be given special treatment (via exclusion)?

        • Jeff says:

          Geothermal systems are tied to the building they serve. Their design and operation are specific to the heating/cooling needs of the building it serves and are the property of the owner. Its not equivalent to private connections to public utilities (sanitary, water).

          Streets are already full with other buried utilities. There are isolation requirements between geothermal bores and sanitary and storm sewers, as well as gas lines and electrical lines. There are also thermal interference concerns when running the supply/return pipes near other utilities.

          Its not practical or possible.

  6. Larry Gilman says:

    I puzzled by a certain myopia here: “The technologies we tend to think of when we use the term ‘renewable energy’ — solar PV, wind, and hydro — usually do nothing to address thermal energy, which makes up roughly one third of our nation’s energy use.”

    Huh? Good solar-based building design essentially eliminates (in both new construction and some retrofits) the need for any dedicated heating or air-conditioning systems at all. Viz. the tens of thousands of comfy, brightly-lit buildings already built to the “passivhaus” standard ( http://www.sphc.co.uk/passivhaus-or-passive-house ), or, as an existence proof for affordably-built commercial-class spaces, NREL’s new zero-net-energy structures in Golden, CO ( http://www.nrel.gov/sustainable_nrel/rsf.html ). A properly designed (or retrofitted) building won’t need a geothermal energy source any more than it needs an oil burner or a giant air conditioner on the roof: http://www.bfrl.nist.gov/buildingtechnology/documents/FederalRDAgendaforNetZeroEnergyHighPerformanceGreenBuildings.pdf .

    Not to say there isn’t a role for geothermal, but let’s keep these things in perspective. Just as daylighting is better than the most power-sipping LED light source pushing back unnecessary darkness, a building that heats and cools itself year-round with a few small circulation/exchange fans is better than one that relies on a gigantic geothermal system — or any other energy source.

    Good energy design always thinks about how to reduce demand before it thinks about how to meet demand.

    • Morgan Ames says:

      Larry,

      Geothermal heat pumps don’t make use of an actual geothermal energy source. “Geothermal heat pump” is actually a bit of a misnomer; “ground-source heat pump” is a more accurate name. The reason they are more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems is because of the moderate temperatures in the shallow subsurface, which are conveniently similar to what we consider comfortable temperatures.

      Also, I agree with your comment that good energy plans consider reduction of energy demand before considering how to meet it, but I disagree with your blanket statement that passive solar design is the best option for low-carbon heating and cooling. It seems that this would be site specific. Do you think retrofitting an entire college campus to have passive solar buildings is more cost efficient than installing this heat pump system? I’m not so sure about that…

  7. Dave says:

    Sounds like a great project…but just how large is it, in equiv Tons ?

  8. Georges Dyer says:

    Thanks for covering this story – it is a highlight. To put it in context, Ball State is one of nearly 700 colleges and universities that are pursuing climate neutrality – net zero GHG emissions – they have not gotten the recognition they deserve for their sustainability leadership on campus, in the classrooms and labs, and in the community.

    For hundreds of other examples in climate action plans and progress reports from the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) see: https://www.acupcc.org/reportingsystem

    Collectively, the ACUPCC network is the 3rd largest buyer of RECs in the US. These efforts are helping schools save hundreds of millions of dollars, and secure hundreds of millions more in outside funding – making them more resilient in the future and helping to improve education while improving access and affordability of higher ed.

    They’re also training tomorrow’s leaders in all disciplines so they’re prepared to create and contribute to the 21st century green economy. See this recent press release for more: http://secondnature.org/news/data-quantifies-impact-of-higher-ed.html

  9. Doug says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if geothermal could be retrofitted underneath existing buildings.

    My post is a bit self-serving, but our company has that capability. If it’s of interest, check our 5 min video at http://www.fenixenergy.com. We’re agnostic when it comes to energy savings solutions. Each building will have a different profile as to what works best depending on load, climate, etc.

    Energy savings measures are not meant to be mutually exclusive. Solar thermal works well with geothermal. These solutions should be combined with lighting, zoning, switching, policies, etc.