Campus Carbon Offset Case Studies: Ball State University


Ball State University has implemented the largest geothermal energy system of its type in the United States.

The Ball State University Story

When officials at Ball State University determined that it was time to replace the University’s aging coal fired boilers, they began analyzing a number of different approaches, with a focus on environmentally responsible systems that would be true to Ball State’s tradition of innovation and sustainability.  Ultimately, the University decided to create the nation’s largest ground-source, closed-loop district geothermal energy system, which would enable the University to deliver deeper greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions against its already demanding Climate Commitment (formerly ACUPCC) signatory goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050.

While the project’s environmental advantages were obvious, there were many other positive factors associated with the project.  Virtually all of the components were manufactured in the United States; most of the contractors were based in the Midwest; and many of the contractors were located in close proximity to Ball State’s campus.  Additionally, the project helped redefine the local water-well drilling industry and propelled companies in this industry into a new and growing market.  The project also offered tremendous learning and research opportunities for Ball State’s faculty and students in areas such as geography, environmental sciences, etc.

After learning about Ball State’s proposed project, Chevrolet, which had recently announced its own corporate initiative of funding carbon reduction project across the United States with the goal of preventing up to 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere over a 5-year period, began discussions with the University about a partnership that could help both parties achieve their goals.  These discussions ultimately led to Chevrolet and Ball State partnering in the development of a market study to be used by Chevrolet and its partners to create new carbon reduction methodologies.

A key component of the market study is Ball State’s transfer of its verified emission reductions (VERs) to Chevrolet.  When completed, the transfers will result in Chevrolet permanently retiring the VERs on behalf of the climate; in later years Ball State will bring these reductions back onto its own books when the credits are no longer sold, so that the university can deliver on its demanding carbon neutral goals.  Based on what the parties have observed to date, it appears the sale of carbon reductions will be a key way for universities to help fund their climate action plans.  As Jim Lowe, Director of Engineering, Construction and Operations, stated:

“Chevrolet’s initiatives will enable universities to “pay forward” carbon reductions as a financing mechanism for implementation of their climate action plans.  Onsite photovoltaic electrical conversion of the sun’s energy, continuing improvement in demand-side reduction through building envelope modifications, improved pump/fan efficiencies, and ultimately modifications to occupant behavior can all spring from this funding support.”

Robert Koester, professor of architecture and Chair of the BSU Council on the Environment (COTE), reflected on the University’s leadership with Chevrolet in pioneering the first pilot clean energy efficiency project and remarked:

“The market study demonstrates that the voluntary carbon market is an ideal playing field for leveraging the support of the Chevrolet carbon credit purchasing.  Without third party financing of this type, most colleges and universities would not be able to capitalize the more significant investments needed to bring down their carbon load on the atmosphere.

The financing made available through Chevrolet can seed the creation of green revolving loan funds at colleges and universities; with such initial capitalization, colleges and universities can continue to pay forward the impact of current efficiency yields toward additional conservation and energy use reductions.  This is a virtuous circle that empowers campuses to pursue deep systems-thinking efficiencies.  It’s a great way to find new roads to travel together towards a clean energy future.”

Ball State University’s LETTERMAN building

Ball State University built its LETTERMAN building in 2007, earning a Silver LEED certification. When considered (albeit on a non-qualifying basis due to its age) as an NC building under the new methodology, LETTERMAN would not have met the performance benchmark since its percent improvement in EUI over code was 19% when 25% would be the required threshold. However, like many leading green building pioneers, Ball State has continued to invest in clean energy efficiency on a system-wide basis. In particular, in 2012, it began running a campus-wide geothermal system to replace its coal boilers. Interestingly, this generated an improvement in EUI in the LETTERMAN building of more than 20%, opening up the option for it to qualify for Chevrolet funding under the LEED EB-A route, earning potential credits of over 400 tons CO2 per year. However, the geothermal systems were so dramatic in their impact that they enabled Ball State to qualify for campus-wide funding (for stationary 1 reductions that exceed an average of 5.86% per year) which offered the potential to earn many more tons of CO2 credits per year – a route that Ball State chose to pursue with Chevrolet.

The business case for its LETTERMAN LEED building was nonetheless intriguing; based on the $3/square foot that LEED estimates is needed to deliver outstanding LEED performance levels, a 10 year stream of the LETTERMAN building credits (at $5-10/ton) would provide a 7.5%-15% return on incremental capital.

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