By cutting costs and laying pipes for entire communities, Dandelion is trying to make emissions-free heating and cooling from the earth more affordable.
During one bitter cold winter in upstate New York, Matt VanDerlofske spent $4,000 on fuel oil to heat his drafty, two-story home for the season. That was twice what he typically paid, and he had to cancel family vacations to afford it.
“I never wanted it to happen again,” he said. His solution was an unusual choice for a homeowner in the U.S., but one that’s gaining interest: He had a hole drilled hundreds of feet into his backyard and a geothermal heat pump installed by Dandelion, a startup energy company conceived at X, Google’s innovation lab that’s now part of its parent company, Alphabet.
Underground, below the frost line, the Earth is consistently around 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Geothermal heat pumps use that temperature to keep buildings comfortable by circulating fluid through a set of pipes that runs through the earth and then connects with a heat pump. The result is much more efficient heating and cooling with clean energy than commercial air conditioning and heating systems—and much lower emissions.
Right now, a tiny percentage of U.S. homes use geothermal heat pumps, according to Xiaobing Liu, a geothermal researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; about 500,000 buildings in the commercial sector use the technology.
Dandelion is trying to expand that market for geothermal heating by lowering the price, and it just got a big boost from the federal government.
On Friday, Congress voted to extend a 30 percent federal tax credit for geothermal heat pump installations. With state incentives included—a $26,000 system in New York would qualify for a $6,000 state rebate—the federal tax credit would drop the cost enough to make it more competitive with traditional heating and cooling.
Like solar power, geothermal heating cuts monthly energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, particularly for homeowners who would otherwise rely on expensive, high-emissions fuel oil. “This is more energy efficient than any other HVAC heating and cooling technology,” with about 20 to 40 percent of energy savings compared to regular heating and cooling systems, Liu said.
“In the past, it’s been an inaccessible technology for normal homeowners,” said Kathy Hannun, a civil engineer and chief executive officer of Dandelion. “It was very expensive, the process is hard to navigate, there’s not a lot of data around system performance, and traditionally the industry has suffered from quality issues.”
“We’re trying to overcome those obstacles,” she said.