Cutting right to the chase, Dandelion plans to change the world of residential geothermal, and it is heading down that long road of transformation starting in the state of New York.
Dandelion Energy spun off from Google parent company Alphabet’s X labs last year, and with so many claims floating around about transformative technologies that would change the world and with residential geothermal having a somewhat tumultuous history, we wanted to dig in deeper…so we did. Dandelion hooked us up with its Principal Engineer, Ryan Carda, to talk through the system at a more technical level and to get a better feel for what’s really going on behind all the flowery PR.
Trimming the Fat
We started off by digging into the single factor that has the biggest effect on Dandelion’s success — the money. We asked about the progress Dandelion has made to date to get the cost of geothermal down. Ryan shared that Dandelion has made a significant amount of progress in lowering the cost of residential geothermal to the point where it has a product it believes is financially viable.
Ryan noted that, “there was no tax credit when we first announced Dandelion.” Even then, when Dandelion split off from Alphabet’s X labs, the team felt they had the right to compete in the market. The 30% federal tax credit on residential geothermal systems gives them a nice tailwind — at least for the 5-year life of the current incentive program but it is not the long term plan. “Our success is not based on the tax credits. we will improve beyond this,” Ryan shared. “While they are beneficial to what we are doing, we have made a lot of progress on price but we feel that there are still a few areas where we can make progress, like drilling.”
The first place the Dandelion Energy team looked for savings was with the heat pump itself. They felt that the core technology was the right solution. Ryan shared that the core technology itself is a great improvement over traditional solutions by itself. Dandelion started by paring down the list of features to the bare minimum. They then took many of the auxiliary packages offered by the competition and included them in the base unit.
Ryan shared that the team, “focused on what the absolutely necessary features we have to have and which are nice to haves,” which helped to narrow down the options. From there, they looked for and found a partner with expertise in heat pumps and found what they were looking for in heat pump manufacturer AAON.
As the foundation for the Dandelion Air unit, the heat pump had to be top notch, and the Dandelion team liked what AAON brought to the table. “They built us a great unit that is very efficient that is also very well-built,” Ryan shared. He attributes to the highly automated process AAON uses to assemble the heat pumps. Sourcing high quality heat pumps built to Dandelion’s specs drove significant savings in the heat pump itself. Working with AAON to optimize the design of the heat pump, “we were able to reduce the price of the heat pump a considerable amount,” Ryan shared.
The Dandelion Energy team still has Google juice running through its veins. As such, this this was built to be smart. Ryan shared that, “we have an on-board monitoring platform that we built — a sensor package.” That sensor package monitors all of the energy flowing through the Air in order to more intelligently balance the priorities of the homeowner.
The Air has its own cellular connection that ensures it is always able to connect to the internet without bogging down the residential wifi. This connection — and some intelligent programming — means the unit can also pull down firmware updates over the air.
Ryan shared that the cellular connection is more than just a nice to have. It also gives Dandelion insights into the health of the system. “The technology itself — the monitoring platform — goes a long way to reduce the cost to service and support the unit down the road.” Having all of the system data accessible in the cloud allows Dandelion to not only monitor the system, but also to remotely identify problems. “If there are issues with the heat pump down the road, we’ll actually be able to detect those with our sensor pack.”
Ryan shared that to further cut costs, “we are looking at the whole process including site assessment, sales, installation and financing.” This end-to-end approach also results in a more seamless experience for customers.
Dandelion chose the Nest Learning thermostat as the front end for its system. This wasn’t an accident or the default decision. Ryan shared that Dandelion chose the Nest because, “the learning aspect of the thermostat made it feel like the right choice.” Long term, Dandelion has bigger plans for the device as they “hope to have integration with the [Nest] platform to make it that much more efficient.”
Residential geothermal solutions require that a well be drilled in the yard of the homeowner, which is typically the most disruptive and costly portions of the overall installation. From early on, Dandelion believed that it could develop new drilling techniques that would not only lower the cost of drilling, but it also hoped to drastically reduce the amount of yard that had to be disturbed to drill the well and install the required trench to the house.
Building a Better Drilling Rig
Naturally, I probed into Dandelion’s progress to date with regards to drilling. Ryan shared that the company is indeed looking to disrupt the traditional model for drilling residential geothermal wells but the technology it is working on is not fully baked yet. As it stands, Ryan shared that, “the majority of drilling equipment today is built for specific applications like water wells.” That comes with a footprint that’s about 8 feet wide by 30 feet long, which tears up a good portion of the yard while it’s working. In contrast, Dandelion’s test rig for its new drilling solution is about the size of a Hummer.
Long term, Dandelion is working on a completely new solution that, “is going to be a suite of tools that are purpose built for geothermal applications.” Building a drilling rig and the requisite supporting gear specifically for geothermal wells means a smaller footprint. “We are looking for a solution that will allow us to drill quickly without having to disturb as much land.” This clearly benefits the homeowner and lowers the cost required to get the yard back to a presentable landscape. Ultimately, “[Dandelion] wants a drilling technology that doesn’t produce as much mess.”
Ryan related that the savings Dandelion Energy has made to date are not coming from improvements in drilling technology. Having said that, he noted that, “we see room for improvement in this area when we are ready to start using it.” The tech will not go live this year but development of the lower cost, smaller footprint solution is moving forward. “We hope to drill some pilot homes with our drilling technology by the end of this year,” Ryan shared.
Driven by Passion
Being a startup that was spun out of a corporate misfit like Alphabet/Google, I was curious what the culture was like at Dandelion. Ryan shared that they are a team comprised of passionate people looking to change the world. “Every single person at Dandelion is very passionate about geothermal energy and what it stands for today.” Their passion and purpose stretch beyond just the company and seem to really resonate with the fundamental reason for the company’s existence. “Going with a geothermal solution, you have so much more freedom.”
“All these people that are heating their homes with oil and propane,” Ryan continued. “The price of fossil fuel tends to bounce all over the place so you’re kind of at the mercy of a whole lot of factors that are out of your control.” The team at Dandelion see geothermal as a way of bringing stability and sanity to homeowners that are reliant on oil and propane today.
As a side benefit, the solution generates zero emissions at the point of use, giving homeowners the ability to nearly eliminate their heating and cooling bills, which comprise the largest portion of spending on energy in the northeastern United States. “Our whole goal is for this to be affordable.” They are not looking for a system that creates a windfall of new profits for their startup, but instead, are truly focused on leveraging their improved heat pump technology in conjunction with the improvements in the pipeline in drilling technology to change lives.
The Bottom Line
Dandelion exists because the team believes it has identified enough opportunities to significantly disrupt the cost equation in residential geothermal. “Our whole goal is to make the combined price of the system plus electricity to be less than what you’re spending on oil per day.”
Technology is at the heart of their approach. Ryan shared that, “The technology has been a big driver behind it and that’s what we get to work on everyday.” This includes the technology in the product as well as the team’s approach to identifying opportunities for a more efficient installation, if that means it can be done at a lower cost. “We just try to find ways to use technology to improve the process overall. To make contractors lives easier, to improve reliability, performance, accuracy, and the designs.”
Dandelion established a core operational footprint in eastern New York state with an installer partnership last month, and announced last week that it has expanded again into the Finger Lakes region and greater Rochester areas of New York state. The new partnership brings Lake Country Geothermal into the fold and gives Dandelion Energy installer and service coverage over the majority of upstate New York.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with Lake Country Geothermal to expand sales and operations to the greater Rochester area,” said Ryan Hunter, Dandelion VP of Operations. “Steve and the team at Lake Country share our commitment to delivering high quality installations and outstanding customer service. We’re very excited to bring Dandelion to homeowners in this part of New York.”
The new partnership puts the site audit, system design, installation and service for the new regions into the hands of Lake Country Geothermal, in partnership with Dandelion Energy. Dandelion will handle the sales and training on their equipment as well as the equipment itself. Homeowners can see if their home is eligible at www.dandelionenergy.com.