Interview With Dandelion (Geothermal) Co-Founder Kathy Hannun

Could you quickly explain how geothermal energy works, and where it is particularly useful?

Geothermal heating and cooling is done by using a heat pump to move heat between the ground and a home or building. The term ‘heat pump’ may be unfamiliar, but heat pumps are actually ubiquitous in modern life: refrigerators are heat pumps, as are air conditioners. Both refrigerators and air conditioners use electricity to move heat from one place to another: in this case, from the inside (of the fridge or building) to the outside.

Geothermal heat pumps are similar, but instead of only moving heat in one direction, they are bidirectional. This allows them to both heat buildings and cool them. And instead of moving heat from the building to the outside air, like an air conditioner does, they move heat between the building and the ground.

This matters because heating your home is most urgent and essential when it’s very cold out, which is precisely when there is the least amount of heat in the outside air. And cooling your home is most urgent and essential when it’s very hot out, exactly when it would be most difficult to reject heat from your home into the outside air. This is why air conditioners are so difficult for the electricity grid: they operate least efficiently exactly when everyone uses them most, on the hottest days of the year.

Geothermal heat pumps sidestep this problem by exchanging heat with the ground instead of the outside air. The ground maintains a mild temperature year round (which is the average air temperature over the course of the year in that location). Because of this, even on the hottest or coldest days, geothermal is still extremely efficient and effective.

Geothermal heating and cooling tends to work best in places where it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer. This is because these climates require a lot of heating and cooling, and it’s in these places that geothermal has the most advantage over air source heat pumps, which exchange heat with the air outside (air source heat pumps are essentially air conditioners that can run in reverse to do both heating and cooling.)

You have a cost example between oil, natural gas, and propane on your page, s0 how do you think these costs are going to develop the next 5 years?

In the Wall Street Journal last week there was an article about options traders betting on a return to $100 oil. I can’t predict oil prices over the next five years, but oil prices have been relatively low since I co-founded Dandelion in 2017, so I bet oil prices are more likely to rise over the next five years than they are to fall. In terms of how geothermal costs are going to develop in the next 5 years, I think 10% lower YOY is a good estimate.

What different forms of geothermal are there, since we see geothermal in the context of residential housing as well as in big commercial plants? 

Geothermal can refer to harnessing energy from the earth’s core, the type Iceland is famous for, but this is not what Dandelion’s geothermal heat pumps do. The heat that geothermal heat pumps collect from the relatively shallow surface is actually stored sunlight, not energy from the earth’s core, so despite the name ‘geothermal,’ geothermal heat pumps are actually using stored solar energy.

How did you learn about the potential of geothermal, and what convinced you to co-found the company?

I learned about the potential of geothermal heating and cooling from a colleague at Google, Bob Wyman (I started Dandelion as a project at Alphabet’s X before spinning it out as a startup). He made a compelling case that widespread geothermal heating and cooling was the most important climate intervention we could take in the US, but that, despite that, geothermal heat pumps were getting approximately no attention.

It was an audacious claim, but he had detailed data and logic backing it up, so his argument captivated me and motivated me to learn more.

That interest developed into co-founding Dandelion when I became convinced that, 1) Geothermal heat pumps have a critical role to play in offsetting carbon emissions from buildings; 2) They align the customer’s financial interests with society’s best interests; 3) The market potential is gigantic; and 4) The barriers that have prevented geothermal heating and cooling from scaling in the past are addressable.

Is there a certain story behind the name Dandelion?

Dandelions have a taproot that can grow as deep as ten feet into the ground. Even if you cut the flower off at the surface, the taproot can regenerate a new one. Similarly, geothermal ground loops extend far into the ground and they last for as long as the home itself. So after 20 years, when it’s time for the homeowner to replace their heat pump, they can just swap it out with another one and connect it with those same ground loops.

There is something very satisfying about the fact that each time we install ground loops in a yard, that home will have access to geothermal heating and cooling forever. Or at least, as long as that home exists.

If you look back to the investment the company received, did the investment landscape and interest in geothermal change visibly in the last few years?

The investment landscape for clean tech has changed dramatically since I co-founded Dandelion in 2017. In 2017, very few investors and even fewer mainstream VC investors were interested in clean tech. Now it seems like there is widespread interest. This makes sense to me because investors have seen that clean tech companies like Tesla can offer massive returns, and the political and business trends suggest clean tech will be a huge part of the future.

Could our readers get out and buy geothermal right away, and in which states (if we’re talking about the US) would it make the most sense (on average)?

Geothermal makes the most financial sense for homeowners who are paying a lot for heating and cooling today. Typically, these are homeowners in cold climate states, especially those using heating fuels like fuel oil or propane.

Some states and utilities also offer generous incentives for geothermal heating, such as NY, CT, MA, SC, and VT, among others.

Most readers will likely be able to find a company that can install geothermal heating and cooling in their area, but the cost may be high. Dandelion exists because we see a need to make geothermal heat pumps more affordable and the process of getting them easier for homeowners, and we look forward to being able to extend that work to more and more places over time (today Dandelion works in NY, CT, and VT).

What is your main competition, and how is Dandelion different?

Our primary competition today is inertia, which is to say conventional heating and cooling options. When it’s time for homeowners to replace their furnace or boiler, many homeowners seek the recommendation of their contractor, who is likely going to recommend the products and brands he or she is most familiar with (typically furnaces and boilers).

Our challenge is to raise awareness of geothermal heating and cooling. We’re different from other geothermal heating and cooling providers because we do residential retrofit at scale. This has let us leverage the fact that we’re serving hundreds of homeowners in a given area to get all of our homeowners better pricing on their equipment and the installation. We’ve also focused on streamlining the customer experience to make the experience of getting geothermal simple and straightforward.

If you could found the company over again, what things would you do differently today?

So many things! Hard to overstate how many things! But here are a few:

  1. I would have looked for mentorship even earlier. I was incredibly fortunate to get connected with Dan Yates, the cofounder and CEO of Opower, about a year into the company, and he had a transformative impact on Dandelion and on me as a leader. If I could have learned even a fraction of what he taught me sooner, I would have saved myself and others a lot of stress during those early years!
  2. I wouldn’t have assumed partners, subcontractors, or anyone else except Dandelion would solve the problems we needed to solve to make the business work. When I started the company, we had a model that assumed local HVAC contractors would sell and install geothermal for customers on behalf of Dandelion. It didn’t take us very long to realize that given these activities were so central to our mission of making geothermal heating simple and affordable, we couldn’t outsource them to others.
  3. I would have been less tolerant of underperformers. I think this is a hard lesson for many new managers, but at the beginning of Dandelion when I was still relatively new to managing a team, I spent an outsized portion of my time and energy dealing with the most difficult employees. With many hard lessons behind me now, I invest the bulk of my time with the highest performing employees, because they are the ones that will build the business and carry us furthest toward our mission.

What other cleantech and general development do you find particularly interesting or fascinating? What would you love to get involved in more but don’t have the time?

I’m an advisor to a startup called Noon that’s inventing a way to use cheap, abundant materials to store a lot of energy at a very low cost. While clean tech history is littered with battery failures, I find Noon exceptionally compelling because it’s one of those bets that could change everything if it works.

If you could suggest a particular law (cleantech or otherwise), what would you suggest?

An extension of the Investment Tax Credit for at least a decade at 30%. This would go such a long way in allowing critical clean technologies like geothermal heat pumps to scale.

Are there some companies you’d really like to work with, but haven’t quite gotten through to yet? Maybe some employees or shareholders are reading this and can reach out! 🙂

We are working with quite a few utility companies across NY, CT, and now VT to offer geothermal incentives for homeowners to transition from furnaces and boilers to heat pumps. These programs have been very successful: they’re good for utility companies because homeowners who use geothermal will typically use more electricity, especially on off-peak times, like night and winter. Geothermal heat pumps also dramatically reduce summer peaks. It’s good for homeowners because it makes geothermal heating and cooling more affordable. We are always looking for additional utility companies to work with, to make geothermal heating and cooling available in more states.

Are you hopeful for humanity, and what would need to happen to make you more hopeful?

I am very hopeful. We have very real challenges to solve, but for the average person, life on this planet has never been better than it is right now. Life expectancy has increased more since 1900 than it had in the preceding 8000 years, and the quality of our lives has astronomically improved with electricity, refrigeration, antibiotics, sanitation, genetically modified crops, the internet, and so many other world-changing innovations that are only a hundred or so years old.

I think it’s likely humanity will continue its pattern of successfully innovating our way out of our biggest challenges.

All images courtesy Dandelion

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