Green Ideas

One college breaks ground on a massive geothermal system, another boasts a new park in an unexpected location and a third has a new green bus (literally) on the road.

May 15, 2009
"Green Ideas," a new Inside Higher Ed feature, will spotlight different strategies, big and small, that colleges are adopting in attempts to reduce their environmental impact.

Geothermal on a Gigantic Scale

The drilling of 4,000 boreholes starts with one and in a ground-breaking ceremony on Saturday, Ball State University got started.

Ball State began construction on a massive, $65 million to $70 million geothermal heating and cooling system that the university says will ultimately transfer heat to and (in summer) from 40 buildings over 660 acres. When the project is completed, in eight years, the university expects it will be

able to take its four coal-fired boilers offline.

"One of the biggest, if not the top, advantage of going to the geothermal based system here is that we are able to reduce our carbon footprint and that is enormous. When all four coal boilers are offline we will extract, from just the coal, over 80,000 tons of carbon per year from our footprint," said Jim Lowe, the director of engineering and operations.

Currently, the university produces about 85,000 to 88,000 tons of carbon due to coal burning per year, Lowe explained; after factoring in extra electricity needed to circulate water in a geothermal system, the estimated carbon savings nets to that 80,000 figure (approximately). The university also expects to save about $2 million per year in fuel costs once the project is completed.

Ball State plans to drill 3,700 to 4,000 boreholes, each one 400- to 500- feet deep, on three planned "energy fields" on the Muncie, Ind., campus.

'Trash to Treasure'

On the University of Connecticut's campus, students can take a walk around the HEEP. "It was a little bit tongue in cheek," said Richard Miller, director of environmental policy, in explaining, that, yes, it's pronounced like "HEAP."

"Since it really was a heap of trash, now the acronym, although not quite the correct spelling, stands for the Hillside Environmental Education Park."

The 64-acre park abuts the site of the campus's old landfill, now capped with a 542-space parking lot -- atop of which sits a scenic overlook."The landfill itself is actually elevated. From a distance it looks like a large mound with a parking lot on top of it, and it creates a nice vantage point for an overlook, that is, a wooden deck that overlooks the park to the north," Miller said.

The site was an active landfill from 1966-1989 and, in 1998, Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection issued a consent order requiring the university to clean up and close down the landfill, as well as chemical disposal pits and what had historically been an ash disposal location. "Since that time the university's invested about $27 million in designing the remediation action plan and really carrying it out," Miller said -- removing 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sediment ("That's a lot of truckloads of contaminated soil") and consolidating the landfill's waste under the cap, with subsurface leachate collection trenches dug on all sides.

The university was also required to conserve the 64 acres adjoining the landfill. "We decided rather than just set aside the land, we wanted to monitor it more carefully, and utilize it more as an educational and recreational resource for our students and the community at large. So that's when we began working with faculty and students in landscape architecture to come up with various designs for how the Hillside Environmental Education Park might eventually be designed to facilitate recreation and education and research," Miller said.

The park encompasses wetlands, a small vernal pool, and hiking trails that connect to open space owned by the town. A second scenic overlook offers a view of a wetland that's served as a rookery for blue herons, Miller said. The university held a dedication ceremony for the park in October.

"We literally turned trash to treasure, I would say," said Ray Frigon, an environmental analyst for Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection and the project manager for the landfill remediation. "Over all it was a much-needed remedy and the university really stepped up to the plate and took care of the situation."

Biodiesel Bus

A biodiesel initiative at the University of Rochester is of a smaller, but, its organizers hope, sustainable scale. "Totally student-led is the key. A lot of other colleges do forms of biodiesel projects but I have not yet found one where the students who work on it are not being paid, where the project managers are students," said Eric Weissmann, a junior political science major who's helped spearhead the project.

Rochester's "biodiesel bus" runs on a B-20 blend -- 80 percent diesel, 20 percent biodiesel converted from waste vegetable oil in a lab designed by students. The bus ran its first route on Earth Day and "is currently running on select charter routes," Weissmann said ("I think it's going to run on the senior night trips to the bar," he added, "which will be hilarious").Come fall, Weissmann expects the biodiesel bus will run on a regular route -- perhaps as a parking shuttle; long-term, he'd like to see it as the default vehicle for the college's "green line," the shopping shuttle. (It's the right color for it.)

Weissmann said he and the other two student leaders, who are both seniors, worked with engineering faculty so that future students can get academic credit for continuing the biodiesel project. "Sustainability has two main definitions. One of them is what we're doing with environmental sustainability but the other one is the project has to be sustainable. We want to make sure this isn't something where a couple of students make a big splash while they're here and disappear."

While future students may decide to expand, for now, the plan is to stick with the one biodiesel bus -- in part because there's only so much vegetable oil on campus. "I like to say that for whatever people want to say about how much greasy food is on college campuses," Weissmann said, "it really isn't as much as people think."

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