Dandelion: An Audacious and Radical Geothermal Energy Startup?

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©. Dandelion

Alphabet's X moonshot factory spins out a ground source heat pump company.

This post has been edited after receiving comments from 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 we really do not have enough information from their website. I was also a bit disappointed that they use the word "geothermal" which I have always thought should be used for systems like they have in Iceland, but Dandelion tells us that there is pretty much a consensus in the industry that heat pumps can be called Geothermal.

Dandelion says in their press release that "home geothermal systems harness thermal energy from below the earth’s surface to heat and cool homes and produce hot water." I have always thought this to be an oversimplification; their drawing shows that for heating, they are absorbing heat from the ground.

In summer, for cooling, they are using the ground as a heat sink and dispersing heat into the ground. A heat pump works like your refrigerator; when a refrigerant changes from liquid to gas it absorbs heat from your home, and when it is compressed back into a liquid it releases heat, which has to go somewhere, and is transferred into the ground. Reverse the cycle in winter for heating and the heat pump draws heat from the ground and releases it inside the house as the refrigerant is compressed to a liquid.

heat pump

© 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.” That's because heat is being moved instead of made by electrical resistance, and because the ground is a better heat sink than the air. I do have trouble with the language, saying that it is tapping into a renewable resource; some say that the ground is heated by the sun, but again what is happening here is the refrigeration cycle. It is putting heat into the ground when cooling the house and it is taking heat out of the ground when heating. What is the renewable resource?

Geothermal heating and cooling is the cleanest and most efficient 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.

Dandelion is operating in Upper New York State, which is blessed with clean electric power from Niagara Falls, so their heat pump will be providing clean power. In other areas where the power comes from coal or natural gas, one has to take into account that electricity production and delivery is not very efficient or clean. And unfortunately for the climate, natural gas is really cheap right now. I suspect that when you take the payments on the $20,000 system into account they will have a tough fight on their hands competing with gas for heating. However the savings on air conditioning might tip the balance in their favor.

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 complexity of the systems. The green consensus moved to reducing demand with lots of insulation and a better envelope to reduce heating and cooling demand, which could be met with much cheaper air source heat pumps.

But for retrofits, where it is not easy to put in all that insulation and to fix that envelope, ground source heat pumps are a great way to reduce heating and cooling costs. In Upper New York State, they are a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Dandelion promises to make their purchase and installation faster, cheaper and easier; I can't complain about that.