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College blows off steam to help power campus

Rather than replace coal-fired boilers, one university opts for an ambitious geothermal system.

Sparks dance inside a pipe as a worker grinds its edge for a geothermal power plant near Minersville, Utah. It uses 300-degree F. water pumped from an underground lake to generate electricity.

Douglas C. Pizac/AP/File

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Gazing at an empty soccer field here at Ball State Uni­versity, Jim Lowe explains his vision for converting it into a field whose harvest would supply this entire campus with renewable geo-thermal energy.

That vision is becoming reality. This month Mr. Lowe, the university’s director of engineering, gave the go-ahead for diesel-belching drill rigs to begin punching 400-foot-deep geothermal wells through athletic fields, parking lots, and grassy lawns across this leafy campus.

Parts of the school may temporarily look like oil fields – until earth is eventually smoothed back to cover the wells, Lowe says. But by transforming the state’s third-largest university into a pincushion, Lowe – with the backing of Ball State President Jo Ann Gora and the university board – expects to shift the school’s energy profile into the 21st century.

Hundreds of colleges across the United States have in recent years pledged to “go green” with energy use and reduce carbon emissions. Some have put up solar panels or wind turbines. Just a few score campuses today use geothermal energy – mostly for heating and cooling isolated buildings.

What makes Ball State’s geothermal plan audacious is its size: 3,750 to 4,000 wells will be dug to supply heating and cooling to most (more than 45 of 50-plus) buildings on the 660-acre campus.

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