Your house could be a geothermal power station

The way we heat and cool buildings is broken. In the US, temperature control accounts for more than half the average home’s annual energy consumption, which makes up over 12 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But a few metres below the ground, the temperature is stable at between 10 to 16 degrees Celsius all year round. For decades, geothermal heat pumps have offered a way to harness this heat to warm and cool our homes in a cleaner, more efficient way – but the installation process has historically been expensive and lengthy, and has required digging up a lot of one’s garden.
That’s where Kathy Hannun comes in. In early 2015, she was working at X, the subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet that focuses on breakthrough technology, when she saw geothermal heat pumps mentioned on a company email list. She had never heard of them, but at the time, her job was to look for transformative opportunities in energy, so she was immediately intrigued.

Geothermal heat pumps use a system of underground pipes, called ground loops, that are filled with water and antifreeze to absorb heat from the ground. This heat is then extracted to warm a home or provide hot water. In summer, the process can be reversed and excess heat in homes can be stored underground.
As she learned more about the installation of the pumps, Hannun saw an opportunity to streamline the process. “The more I learned about geothermal heat pumps, the more it really seemed like all of the things holding them back and keeping them a niche technology in the US were very superficial,” she says.

Hannun always had a keen eye on climate, and she pitched the idea of a startup that installed geothermal heat pumps to X leadership. “At the time, I was terrified, because I had no idea how to do that,” she says. But she managed to convince them, and in April 2017, Dandelion Energy was born. “And then after six months of very hard work trying to spin out this company it was like: congratulations, you’ve spun this out. Now you are unemployed.”
In the past, a heat pump system would have cost up to $100,000 (£72,000) – Dandelion Energy offers its products for a total cost of less than $30,000 (£21,500) which can be financed over 20 years. Demand was strong: in 2017, the company sold more systems than it had the capacity to install.
But this initial success was followed by product and financial setbacks: the startup came within tens of thousands of dollars of running out of money entirely during the winter of 2017-2018, at a time when Hannun was heavily pregnant. Dandelion raised $4.5 million of funding the day before Hannun gave birth.
For now, Dandelion’s service is only available in New York and Connecticut, but the company is looking to expand to other parts of the US, as well as to colder climates, such as Canada. Hannun says its biggest goal is to get prices low enough to compete with natural gas, which will happen as the company scales. The prospects look good as consumer attitudes begin to shift: in 2019, 20 million households installed heat pumps, according to the International Energy Agency, up from 14 million in 2010.
Every part of society relies on energy, “but we can’t totally ruin our planet in the process,” Hannun says. “So, even playing just a tiny part in solving that problem, I can’t think of something more useful to do with my time.”

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