Dandelion: an audacious and radical geothermal energy startup?


© Dandelion

Move over, Waymo; here’s the next spinoff out of X, Google parent Alphabet’s “moonshot factory”- Dandelion, a new company that will install ground source heat pumps that they claim are “affordable and accessible to homeowners.” According to the press release,

X “ incubates new breakthroughs in science or technology that, we hope, could solve huge problems that affect millions of people. Our inventors, engineers, designers, and makers apply audacious thinking and radical new technology to huge problems.”

So what is the problem that Dandelion is solving, and what is the audacious thinking and radical new technology?

In the U.S., buildings account for 39% of all carbon emissions, and the majority of these emissions come from heating and cooling. Dandelion’s solution will cost consumers around half of what geothermal installations have cost to date and be less expensive than fuel oil or propane heating.

Dandelion is selling a ground source heat pump system, which is not exactly audacious. But they have developed a special drill designed specifically for the purpose that makes smaller holes more quickly, cutting the installation time significantly. They also have “no money down” financing.

Is it a radical new technology? It doesn’t really seem like it. But what really bothers me is the disservice they do by dumbing it all down on their website and their press release. There was pretty much a consensus that heat pumps should not be called geothermal, which means “heat from the earth” and usually refers to systems like they have in Iceland and other volcanic areas.

They say in the press release that "home geothermal systems harness thermal energy from below the earth’s surface to heat and cool homes and produce hot water." That’s why you get dumb headlines like the one in Builder Magazine, which should know better, which says “this new system heats and cools with geothermal energy.” Because this is totally misleading. It heats and cools with electricity. The ground is a heat sink. Period.

© Dandelion

They say that it is “earth friendly- Geothermal heating and cooling taps into a renewable resource that never runs out and is over 3 times more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems.” But this is like saying your air conditioner is tapping into a renewable resource. I reiterate: a ground source heat pump is moving heat out of the ground to heat in winter and putting heat into the ground to cool in summer. In their FAQ, they even say exactly that, comparing it to a refrigerator. And it can actually run out; In winter, poorly sized systems can actually take so much heat out of the ground that it actually freezes. And I just cringed when they write in FAQ:

Geothermal heating and cooling is the cleanest and most efficient and heating and cooling technology on the market. Because the system taps into a renewable resource, the earth, your heating and cooling source will never run out and monthly bills are predictable. An average homeowner who uses oil or propane to heat the home spends $2,500 a year on heating fuels, which averages to almost $210/month. With Dandelion’s zero-down installation, homeowners can expect to pay less.

No, it is not the cleanest and most efficient; it runs on electricity. In New York State it might be clean because of Niagara Falls, but depending on the energy mix it could actually be dirtier than an efficient gas furnace. The earth is not a renewable resource, it is a heat sink. And it is not necessarily the cheapest, depending on the cost of gas, the cost of electricity, and the monthly payments on the $20,000 purchase price.

There are some who claim that heat pumps are geothermal because they take heat out of the ground, and that the ground is heated by the sun so therefore it is renewable, but that would mean that air source heat pumps are using a renewable resource too; they are exactly the same without the expensive pipes. There are others who claim that "geothermal" has become a standard and accepted use by the public, (I know I am being a pedant, but this fight has been going on for a decade at least) and that may be the case but it just leads to totally inaccurate and probably deceptive statements like CEO Kathy Hannun’s where she writes: “We look forward to helping New Yorkers enjoy an affordable, clean and abundant source of energy and, we hope, someday, a better planet.”

A decade ago, all the green experts were excited about ground source heat pumps. A lot of them became disenchanted because of the cost and the wild claims by promoters who would call them “an affordable clean and abundant source of energy“ when they are not necessarily affordable, or clean, and are not a source of energy. The green consensus moved to reducing demand with lots of insulation and a better envelope combined with much cheaper air source heat pumps. The position is that radical building efficiency is better than fancy complex technology.

Perhaps this will change with Dandelion, which claims to have made ground source heat pumps cheaper and easier. I certainly hope so, but audacious and radical it ain’t.