Emerging energy technologies: a Q&A with YouTuber Matt Ferrell
Do you remember a time when you were excited about innovations in the energy space? I’ve spent most of my career in the energy efficiency industry, so I’ve seen the ebb and flow of new technologies burst on to the scene as potential energy conservation measures. But I’ll admit, it’s been a while since I was excited by anything emerging. That is, until several months ago, when I stumbled upon a YouTube channel called Undecided with Matt Ferrell.
Finding quality info on YouTube can be fairly chaotic (we won’t attempt to address why social media algorithms work the way they do), but when I started watching Matt’s videos, I had to admit that YouTube had me pegged! Matt’s channel explores how sustainable and smart technologies impact our lives, and it includes well-researched videos on topics like electric vehicles, solar panels, renewable energy, and the topic that sparked the idea for this blog—heat pumps.
Heat pumps are widely regarded as the heart of a strategy to “electrify everything”, which is one of our best paths to reducing carbon emissions using existing technology. The concept has been written about prominently, like in this 2020 Sierra Club study, and is the foundation for several transformative market efforts such as the NYS Clean Heat Initiative. However, heat pumps aren’t exactly… emerging. They’ve been around for a while, but they haven’t seen the adoption we’d expect.
To discuss this and other truly emerging cleantech – particularly on the heels of the historic Inflation Reduction Act – I decided to go to the nicest YouTube creator out there, Matt Ferrell himself. Following are his takes on the technology that can help us change the way people use energy.
Your June video on heat pumps was what gave me the idea to collaborate on this blog post, and just last month the Washington Post published an article on how heat pumps could help us comfortably get through future heat waves. Do you think heat pumps are finally about to go mainstream?
I’ve definitely become a believer in “heat pump all the things.” Two common issues with heat pumps in the past have been the higher upfront cost and the lower performance in super cold climates. Both of those have seen significant improvements in recent years. Today you don’t have to look very far to find cost-competitive options, like ductless systems that don’t have the high-cost premium. Any slightly higher upfront equipment cost is made up for in a few years from the reduced operating costs. There are also systems available that have much improved cold climate efficiency. There are some systems now that even work down to -13°F. Bottom line: I really think it’s about to go mainstream.
Besides heat pumps, what are the top three technologies you've seen that have the most potential to help the average person reduce their energy consumption and/or transition to cleaner energy?
I think I’m going to have to cheat with this one. It’s basically dozens of devices all rolled into one giant category—smart home technologies. I’m talking about smart thermostats, smart light switches, motion and temperature sensors, etc. With connected devices your home can coordinate its heating and cooling cycles based on other activities. For instance, the system can learn when you’re home or away and find patterns to improve efficiency based on that. It may also allow you to participate in utility peak saving programs. Devices can talk amongst themselves to find efficiencies, like smart EV chargers and energy monitoring smart home tech that can charge your car when it’s the cheapest or from excess solar production from your roof. When the house knows how much electricity is currently getting used and where, it can make intelligent choices to save you money and energy automatically. The possibilities feel endless.
Emily’s industry insights: Jumping off Matt’s answer here. For utilities, when the house “knows” how much energy is being used, it means these devices share data that’s extremely valuable for managing community demand, maintaining a reliable grid and avoiding the need for new power plants. This can fall under many categories, but commonly includes support for demand-response programs and distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS).
I know you look at cost and market potential when you are evaluating new technologies for your videos. Is there one technology that has struck you as so cost-effective and promising that we should all be surprised that it's not widely available yet?
This may have jumped into my head because of how recently I covered it, but ventless heat pump dryers. I’ve never come across one in person yet since most of my family and friends have either standard electric or gas dryers in their homes. They aren’t that much more expensive than a standard dryer but can easily recoup that premium in short order from electricity savings. The U.S. can learn a lot from the EU market for home heating, cooling and appliances. I’ve spoken to quite a few people in Europe that have heat pump dryers and absolutely love them, which raises the question, “why aren’t they everywhere in the U.S.?” I’m planning on getting one for my home.
In contrast to the last question: have you ever come across a technology that you realized was not ready for "prime time" such that you didn't feel comfortable reviewing it? And if so, did you make a video anyway, or did you hold onto it for potential future use, provided the technology evolves eventually?
There are definitely technologies and topics I come across that aren’t ready for prime time. Sometimes the technology is incredible in performance, but costs 10 times as much as what we use today. Other times it’s a technology that has promise, but still needs more time in the oven to work out the kinks. I may still touch on them as a sign of where things may be heading if they can work out those issues, but I try to relate that back to what’s currently available.
Bonus question that we’re curious about. Which topics result in the most viewer engagement? What terms or vocabulary seem to resonate most with viewers when you talk about technical concepts? For example, are you getting better feedback when you talk about "electrification", "decarbonization", etc.? We know that these are popular terms within our own industry, but they may not always land with a general audience.
The topics that hit really well are batteries and energy storage, solar panels, and electrification. On that last one there’s a lot of interest in products that are compelling fossil fuel alternatives like EVs, electric lawn mowers, electric snow blowers, etc. If I target a video on decarbonization or climate, they tend to not resonate in the same way.
For more on emerging climate tech, clean energy and awesomeness in the decarbonization space, subscribe to Matt on YouTube, visit his website, and stay tuned to CLEAResult Energy Forum for news, blogs and more, including our CEO’s latest article on trends he sees from his unique bird’s eye view of the sustainability business.