Renewable energy? UI’s new Campus Instructional Facility can dig it |

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URBANA — The University of Illinois’ glossy new building at Springfield Avenue and Wright Street represents the next step in its sustainability goals.

The four-story, 122,000- square-foot, $75 million Campus Instructional Facility is also the biggest geothermal installation on the UI campus.

Its geothermal system can pump 135 tons of hot or cool air into the building. That’s twice as much as the next biggest geothermal system on campus, and about 30 times the amount pumped into an average home.

“The whole world knows about solar and wind power and things like that — hydroelectric power, too — but that’s only the electric side of energy. Energy also includes heating and cooling,” said Morgan White, director of sustainability at UI Facilities & Services. “It’s truly transformative, because it’s moving into the phase of getting us clean thermal energy and not just clean electricity.”

Electricity provides heating and cooling as well, she said, but it’s primarily provided by natural gas, propane and other nonrenewable sources of energy.

The key to the geothermal endeavor? Forty boreholes dug into the Bardeen Quad next to Grainger Library. They’re 20 feet apart, 6 inches wide and drilled 450 feet deep.

Initially, the project required 60 boreholes, but UI researchers reduced that figure — and made the system financially feasible — by checking the thermal conductivity of different rock and soil layers, or the rate that heat passes through them, while considering the depth and flow rate of groundwater.

To keep the building temperate year-round, a mixture of water and glycol circulates from a heat pump in the mechanical room into a pipe that runs up and down the underground field of boreholes.

In winter, the pump pulls heat from the ground into the building. In summer, heat is pumped from the building back into the ground.

“It’s like when you have a bathtub that’s a little too hot or a little too cold, and you pour some water in and stir it up,” White said.

In all, the system reduces the building’s energy consumption by 65 percent compared to a typical heating/cooling installation, saving about $45,000 per year.

Student initiatives helped fund the state-of-the-art thermal system. The 18-member Student Sustainability Committee, funded by the annual “Green Fee” assessed on students, allocated $375,000 — or about 13 percent of the system’s cost — to the facility’s geothermal installation.

The building has a number of other unique features. It contains two dozen new classrooms — one of the highest figures on campus — replete with active-learning and distance-learning spaces. In the fall, engineering courses will occupy most of the space, along with math, statistics and other technical classes.

The facility is also the first UI building funded through a public-private partnership, which allows for tax-exempt financing.

Meanwhile, faculty and graduate students will use temperature information from a 385-foot-deep monitoring well, funded by Facilities & Services and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, for continued research opportunities. 

As part of the Illinois Climate Action Plan, the university plans to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Currently, around 12 percent of electricity is provided by renewable sources, like the solar and wind farms near campus, White said. But only 4.5 percent of the UI’s total energy use, counting thermal, comes from renewable sources.

“Clean electricity is important, but it’s not enough,” White said.

In the planning stages, the UI wasn’t supposed to start implementing geothermal systems until 2035, but a suggestion by Yu-Feng Forrest Lin of the Prairie Research Institute jump-started that process.

“He said, ‘Why are you waiting until 2035? We should do this right now,’” White said. “And I said, ‘Great. Let’s do it.’”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building will be held in fall before classes begin.

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