The Innovators

Inside Kathy Hannun's quest to provide accessible household geothermal

Kathy Hannun and a home with solar
Kathy Hannun
Kathy Hannun and a Dandelion home geothermal installation in Rhinebeck, New York.

Renewable energy is almost synonymous with two forms of electricity in today's market: solar and wind. While most new additions to the renewable energy mix in the United States are solar and wind-based, a new venture has launched to expand and diversify this trend. Dandelion Energy is pioneering the next generation of home geothermal, using the natural heat of the ground to heat and cool residential buildings.

Founder Kathy Hannun is no stranger to infrastructure challenges. She studied civil engineering to "help shape how humans interact with the natural world." After working as a product manager at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Hannun spun off Dandelion Energy from Alphabet’s X to help solve climate change. Why?

As Hannun explained, "Every time you hear the news it seems people are experiencing disasters can be largely attributed to a changing climate: fires, mudslides, flooding, hurricanes, etc. Epidemiologists talk about how climate change will increase the spread and severity of disease; human rights activists describe how climate change leads to conflict and massive human migration. The problem is so vast and consequential that it's a very compelling and meaningful problem to focus on."

Dandelion Energy's solution is two-pronged: a zero-money down financing option that allows customers to switch from fuel oil or propane and advanced drilling as well as software technology that makes the home geothermal installation simple and time-effective. 

For the end-user — the household — the benefits of switching to home geothermal include savings (eliminating the dependence on fluctuating fuel prices) and safety (removing carbon monoxide poisoning risk and fuel oil leaks). And during cold snaps, such as the one in December, homeowners are not reliant on deficient fuel oil deliveries made vulnerable by harsh outdoor conditions. 

A home geothermal system extracts the naturally occurring heat below ground, typically around a constant temperature of 50 degrees F; through a system of pipes and pumps, the system heats in the winter and cools in the summer, and it's the most efficient way to do so. Before Dandelion Energy, installing a system would involve quite the spectacle: large water well drilling machines designed for 1,000 feet depths slowly would plow through a yard for three to four days. Dandelion Energy’s installation takes less than a day and is less intrusive. 

Globally, buildings use about 32 percent of all energy generated, and more than one-third of that energy is used for heating and cooling. In the U.S., buildings represent the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation. To exacerbate matters, the Northeast region of the United States is the most heavily reliant on heating oil — about 21 percent of homes use oil for heating. In Massachusetts, the average household heating oil usage is 774 gallons, representing about 17,000 pounds of carbon emissions (equivalent to the emissions of 1.6 passenger cars per year).

Dandelion's mission is to provide earth-powered heating for every home. To achieve this mission, Hannun's role is centered on assembling and leading an effective team. Currently at eight employees, Dandelion is growing its team this year. Most of the current staff has experience in the solar industry from companies such as Sungevity and Mosaic. As Dandelion is not installing the geothermal systems directly, no particular certifications are needed to become a part of the team. Instead, skills in software development, operations, supply chain and marketing are highly valued. 

Like many startups, most members of the founding team came to work at Dandelion through a recommendation or through an existing team member’s network. In addition, a few employees first worked as consultants before landing an internal position. Dandelion has found the most challenge in filling technical roles because while the founder’s networks are strongest in California, the positions are New York-based. 

According to Hannun, Dandelion’s culture is "rooted in a shared desire to build a company that significantly contributes to mitigating climate change." As such, Dandelion will continue to attract talent with a clear interest and background in solving climate change. Dandelion’s team is made up of humble and hard-working people, with a sense of humor core to the workplace culture. As Dandelion grows, it looks for employees who have illustrated success when solving ambiguous and complicated issues with limited resources. 

Of the 400,000-plus workers employed in renewable energy generation in the U.S., over 70 percent work in the solar energy industry (PDF), according to an E2 study. Dandelion’s breakthrough in home geothermal greatly could expand the scope of the renewable energy industry to encompass earth-powered heating. In 2018, Dandelion is extending service to most of New York state and other areas within the Northeast. As it grows, it seeks skilled software engineers, project finance specialists and people with expertise in operations and supply chain. It also relies on a growing base of geothermal energy contractors with drilling and piping expertise. 

While Hannun has no doubt that gender plays a role in Dandelion’s journey, she finds it difficult to describe exactly how. For now, she and Dandelion are running at whirlwind speed, and she is often reminded of the parable presented in David Foster Wallace’s "This is Water" graduation speech: two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

Wearing my cleantech venture hat, what I like most about Dandelion’s innovation is that it addresses a specific, unexplored yet big enough problem. While so many new companies are chasing large categories of problems such as "generation" or "transmission and distribution," Dandelion has identified a real pain point in space heating and paired it with a tangible solution that can scale globally.