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University looks into geothermal energy to help heat, cool campus

The University has been researching possible alternative energy sources that can be tapped here in Wood County.

With the recent fracking issue on the Wood County ballot, and with this year being the 10-year anniversary of wind turbines being in Wood County, the issue of alternative and renewable energy sources seems especially relevant.

Charles Onasch, director of the geology department at the University, was involved in University President Mary Ellen Mazey’s climate committee dedicated to looking into the possibility of alternative energy sources on campus. Onasch said geothermal energy was at the top of the list.

Using geothermal energy will help reduce the University’s carbon footprint. Geothermal energy refers to gathering energy from the natural heat produced by the Earth. Onasch said the energy can be used for both heating and cooling depending on the season, as the temperature in the ground stays constant throughout the year while the temperatures above the ground vary.

“You could see how you can use the lower temperature down there for cooling purposes [in the summer],” Onasch said.

Onasch said in the colder months the ground is still about 52 degrees, which is relatively warm for a winter climate.

“We have that heat energy in the earth that we can then extract and use for heating in the buildings or heating for hot water purposes,” Onasch said. “It can both heat and cool, and that’s the beauty of geothermal.”

Nick Hennessy, director of sustainability for the University, said geothermal could cut down on the cost of utilities.

“Geothermal reprsents for us a possible option for reduction of heating and cooling costs,” Hennessy said. “It would save us electricity because if we are using less in energy to heat and cool, we’re going to use less electricity to run things like pumps or fans.”

Hennessy said people should think of geothermal energy as a means to cut down on energy consumption rather than a new source of energy itself.

“Geothermal will not provide us with electricity,” he said. “Geothermal is strictly a heating-cooling type of technology.”

Onasch said the University has been considering geothermal energy since this past spring, when the president’s committee filed its report. The main inspiration for geothermal was Ball State University, which Onasch said has the most notable geothermal installation of any major university.

“A couple of people on the committee took a trip to Ball State to see their installation,” Onasch said. “They have completely replaced their coal-fired heating plant with a geothermal system.”

Onasch said though wind power is a popular suggestion, the Wood County municipal airport prevents the University from erecting wind turbines on campus due to Federal Aviation Administration regulations preventing structures of a certain height near airports.

Hennessy said the University is working with a firm called MEP Associates, LLC, which is currently conducting a feasibility study regarding geothermal energy on campus. MEP is the same firm that worked with Ball State, and has also assisted Miami University of Ohio and Ohio State University in planning and constructing geothermal systems.

“We should get some type of report from MEP in mid-December that says, ‘here is what we think are your options in the geothermal area,’” Hennessy said. “I think it should include some ballpark estimates for each one of the options that it provides to us.”

Social work major Adelle Polasky said she would support a University initiative to switch to more renewable sources of energy.

“I think [alternative energy] would be better for the environment,” Polasky said. “If they are going to go more eco-friendly, that would be cooler.”

Hennessy said Ball State is an extreme example of a university using renewable energy sources, but does represent one of the most successful instances of geothermal systems to date.

“[Ball State] didn’t fool around. They said, ‘we’re doing a full campus reversal,” Hennessy said. “[Ball State said] ‘here’s when we’re going to have it done, and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.’”

How the University handles alternative energy depends on how much money can be put toward it.

“The big ticket item [is] finances,” Hennessy said. “It’s an expensive form of installation that certainly has a payback on your investment, but it certainly helps to obtain the type of grant funding that Ball State was able to obtain.”

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