Friday, May 16, 2014

Why ND should be going geothermal

This piece was written by Notre Dame junior Garrett Blad and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014.

When discussing green energy these days, talk of wind and solar always seems to grab the limelight. But have we underestimated another player in this game?

Without an affordable way to store energy, these intermittent sources are still restricted to the minor leagues. While we were looking to the skies for a solution for clean energy, did we hold our gaze too high?

On March 20, 2014, Ball State University shut down its four coal-fired boilers that powered the university since the 1940s. Shut down, for good.

The university has chosen to replace this power with, that’s right, geothermal energy.
Deploying geothermal technology at such a large scale was unimaginable before, making this transition unprecedented. Who knew that a public university in Muncie, IN would break through barriers in clean energy technology?

So what exactly is geothermal energy? This type of geothermal energy does not generate electricity, but rather uses the stable, 55 degree temperature of the Earth as either a heat source or sink, depending on the time of year.

During the winter, the heat from the ground is picked up by the water pumps and is used to heat buildings. During the summer, the process is reversed and water is chilled in the ground and used to cool buildings.
The difference is that a typical power plant burns fossil fuels to produce heat, whereas a geothermal system simply transfers heat from one place to another.

Construction of this ambitious heat pump system started in 2009. After the drilling more than 1,000 miles of loop field piping, the geothermal project now links 47 buildings across campus and provides heating and cooling potential to 5.5 million square feet, or about 100 football fields worth of space.


While some energy is still needed to power the heat pumps, the project reduced the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half.

The four coal-fired boilers that previously provided the bulk of the university’s power were able to be completely terminated and now, energy production depends on just three natural gas-powered boilers, adding up to a savings of over $2 million in operating costs annually. The project, which cost $80 million in total, will pay for itself in forty years.

Ball State’s bold move to construct this geothermal system changes the game for energy reduction measures.

Never before was it thought possible to fashion such an immense version  of the geothermal heat pump.
Ball State has created jobs, reduced its impact on climate change, improved local air quality, and become a national beacon for emissions reductions and clean energy deployment.

What’s more, this technology is not exclusive to Muncie, Indiana; it can be applied nationwide. So what does this mean for us at Notre Dame?

A recent survey of the geological structures beneath University of Notre Dame showed that the entire campus is suitable for geothermal heat pump technology. However, it appears as if the university is not fully convinced of this technology seeing as no large-scale project has been presented.

As a university who continues to burn coal on campus and whose carbon reduction goals fall well behind other universities, we have much to benefit from a system such as this.

Are we ready to take this huge step towards lower emissions and better air quality?

In light of other, far more expensive projects that are planned for campus expansion here at Notre Dame, this hardly seems extravagant. The cost of a geothermal pump system, which would greatly reduce our impact on climate change and improve air quality on campus, would be dwarfed by the impressive $400 million Campus Crossroads project that will be built in the upcoming years.

The question is, what will our legacy be?

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