DALL·E generated image of a slick marketing executive with red flags all over him, digital art

Use This Filter Of Marketing Red Flag Tests To Assess Cool New Cleantech

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When I look at new technologies and new firms claiming to be the greatest thing since sliced Jamon Iberico, I have a set of questions I ask automatically to see how likely they are to be a viable and going concern, whether to invest more attention, and where. These are easy and quick questions to answer for the average person, so in the interest of inoculating more people against cleantech snake oil, I’m writing out my current list with examples.

They cover the categories of technology, business model, and marketing. Articles about the first two are finished, but this piece is on marketing red flags and a summary list for convenience. As always, a reminder that a red flag isn’t an automatic disqualification, but the more there are, the more cause for skepticism.

Red flag: Does the company’s public material spend much of its time disparaging other clean technologies?

Good products and firms sell themselves on the results their products offer, their quality, and their credentials. They’ll have testimonials from satisfied clients and third-party assessment results. They’ll have straightforward material about savings or profits to be made.

But if a firm spends a lot of time slamming some competitive technology, especially if it’s with nonsense, then it’s hard to take it seriously. Wind energy ‘innovation’ is rife with this. People still pushing the nonsense of vertical axis turbines against the wind typically have lots of words about actually useful horizontal axis wind turbines and their purported bird-killing and sleep-upsetting noise levels. Ditto the airborne wind energy types.

Sheerwind Invelox’ wind funnel contraption constantly made comparisons to real wind generation, of course, spinning specious claims of generating vastly more electricity while killing no birds.

As a note, current major small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) firms are mostly too well-funded to fall into that trap. They hire professional marketing types, which is a what serious firms tend to do. They do all tend to stress terms like ‘reliable’, ‘land use’, and ‘baseload’ as if those are meaningful differentiators, as opposed to dog whistles or archaic. The nuclear industry likes to pretend wind and solar aren’t reliable, although this is belied by the grids with the greatest reliability having the most renewables, for example Germany and Denmark with their roughly 13 minutes of outages per customer per year. And they still do keep harping on about land use as if that isn’t factored into the cost of electricity, as if interspersing wind turbines with farm land takes more than 1% of the land and usually the non-arable quarters, and as if there isn’t so much non-arable land available that solar farms are trivial to cite. And baseload is an archaic term from dumber grids, when what is required is firmed and flexible electricity.

How do you test for this? Read their marketing material including brochures and websites and see if they are slamming a tech that isn’t theirs instead of publishing clear statements about the benefits that their technology brings.

Red flag: Is its website missing or clearly misleading?

A website is part of the cost of doing business. It’s table stakes. A firm has to have one, and it has to be more than a single page.

I remember one technology that someone pointed me at, and the entire web page was a single JPEG that looked like a web page and did nothing. Just enough HTML to pin a picture of a webpage. So odd.

Web pages that don’t have contact information or mechanisms, that don’t have business locations, that don’t have product or service listings — all of these things are red flags. It doesn’t mean that they are con artists, although it can, but it does mean that they are incompetent at very basic marketing and technology, which isn’t a good sign.

Then there is the misleading information. Joi Scientific had a lovely little animated video that caught my eye, as it appeared to be saying that the technology generated twice as much energy as was put in at the beginning. That red flag made me go dig through its filed patents, where I found claims of both 2x and 4x energy output to input, and a claim that it changed the electron orbital diameter of atoms to achieve this. Stunningly brazen nonsense, and the couple of STEM types at New Brunswick Power and a local university should be grievously embarrassed and professionally shamed for believing it.

How do you test for this? Go read their website, or try to. If you can’t find one, red flag. If it’s a single page with no moving parts, red flag. If you spot obvious nonsense, red flag.

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Red flag: Is it being promoted heavily by the fossil fuel industry as a clean solution?

Greenwashing is a thing. Do you remember British Petroleum changing its name to bp and giving itself a green flower as its logo? Did you hear about its massive greenwashing ad spending in 2022, doubling its 2021 spending on Facebook and the like? Did you hear about all of the green-focused executives who left Shell in 2020 because they realized they were powerless green tokens and incapable of getting the company to do anything worthwhile?

Well, anytime a fossil fuel company is promoting a technology as a solution to climate change or pollution, be very skeptical. This doesn’t mean that everything that it does or promotes is worthless, but it’s a serious red flag and you should investigate further.

A poster child for this is Carbon Engineering, and in fact everything in the mechanical direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and sequestration space (CCS). The fossil fuel industry loves DAC and CCS because it allows its customers to pretend that they can continue to burn fossil fuels, creating 2-3 times the mass of vastly higher volume and diffuse CO2, and we’ll just magically vacuum it up like it was dust bunnies and empty the bag into a convenient hole in the ground.

Right now, the fossil fuel industry is pushing hydrogen for energy hard. As Michael Liebreich says, they can’t lose by pushing this thermodynamic and economic nonsense uphill. Either they delay real decarbonization for a decade, allowing them years of more profits at the expense of pretty much everybody in the world for the next several hundred years, or they get governments to give them massive amounts of money and they make a lot of blue hydrogen that’s only somewhat better than black or gray hydrogen, but quite a bit more expensive. Here’s bp promoting the glories of hydrogen. Here’s Shell promoting the wonders of hydrogen. Here’s Equinor promoting the subtle beauty of the tiny molecule. Here’s Saudi Aramco promoting the remarkable advantages of hydrogen. Etc., etc., ad nauseam. You can’t shake any fossil fuel company’s website and marketing collateral without hydrogen falling out all over the place, so be careful lighting matches near them. Remember, they aren’t doing this for you.

How do you test for this? Sometimes this can be hard, as the industry has absurd amounts of money and hence can pay expensive arms’ length PR firms to promote things on their behalf. But greenwashing is pretty easy to spot, as the firms like to put their logos on it so they get credit. A lot of firms have changed their names, so just Google each firm’s name and find out how deep into the fossil fuel industry it is. If a product or tech is being promoted a firm that’s clearly deep into the fossil fuel industry, that’s a red flag.

So that’s the list of red flags for marketing. As a reminder, no single red flag invalidates a product except for a couple of the technology ones, but the more red flags pop up, the less likely the firm is to be viable, and if there are a lot of red flags, then you should consider whether they are actively venal and misleading.

Here’s the full list:

Technology Red Flag Questions

  • Does the solution exceed known physical limits?
  • Is it old tech claiming to be new tech?
  • Is it just a design concept?
  • Is there any independent verification of claims?
  • Are any claimed patents for anything that it is actually doing, and are the patents active?
  • Are the assessments being done following existing standards such as ISO lifecycle approaches?
  • Are there really obvious technical challenges in the space?
  • Is novelty being added for no apparent reason?

Business Model Red Flag Questions

  • Do the principals in the firm have any related qualifications?
  • Do they claim that they are going to completely replace an existing cleantech solution?
  • Do they add major operational labor requirements, or are unaware of what that means to competition?
  • Is the only current use of a solution in the military?
  • Is the solution claiming to be for one market, but it’s obvious that its natural market is something else entirely?

Marketing Red Flag Questions

  • Does its public material spend much of its time disparaging other clean technologies?
  • Is its website missing or clearly misleading?
  • Is it being promoted heavily by the fossil fuel industry as a clean solution?

And so, the set of red flag questions you should quickly ask about any new cleantech firm, technology, or product is now in your hands. Inoculate yourself against sexy, but impractical technologies. Keep yourself and your expectations grounded. And above all, try not to get suckered by firms that are going nowhere fast with other people’s money.


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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 721 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard