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Summary:

Why are there so many snake oil salesmen and scam artists in the energy space?

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When a friend of mine who follows clean power and greentech closely sent me Bloomberg’s story on Rocketjet, I burst out laughing. We have an unspoken contest over who can send each other the worst scams in the energy and green industries. Rocketjet’s hopes for perhaps crowd-funding its water atomic engine that will kick off a “Free Energy Era” is one of the more obvious ones — enough to draw the attention of the often straight-laced Bloomberg, and also to become a mini-symbol of all that could go wrong with the new crowd-funding act.

But after the initial guffaw, Rocketjet got me thinking: why are there so many snake oil salesmen and scam artists in the energy space? Other gems that have emerged in recent years are the solar developers at Matinee Energy (awesome piece by the Phoenix New Times on these folks), biofuel company Cello Energy, which was sued in court for fraud, the oft-discussed capacitor maker eeStor, which has over-promised and never delivered, and the biochar ponzi scheme Mantria, whose lead investment broker funnelled other people’s funds into, among other things, his own penchant for prostitutes (another amazing local report covered those guys).

And yes, I know all sectors have their own charlatans. The web, in particular had more than its fair share in the 90’s dotcom boom. But the green energy sector has its own specific brand of snake oil salesman that benefit from the difficulties of knowing and proving breakthroughs in science; the optimism of investors who want to give their funds to investments that have a higher aim; and the fact that a major breakthrough in the trillion-dollar energy markets could actually be a massive financial opportunity.

Some of these energy scams have the imaginative do-gooder power and infrastructure buildout of the monorail scheme. Put the money into building out the infrastructure-heavy project and it’ll bring jobs, revitalizing a depressed area, and also save the planet (misplaced clean power projects or factories come to mind for this type).

Other energy scams involve a breakthrough that is so large that it’s, well, not scientifically possible. Things that tout free, infinite clean energy are often too good to be true. And these companies aren’t even necessarily scams, but perhaps over eager or incorrect scientists. There’s been more than a few times when scientists have called BS on venture-backed green startups.

The problem with these colossal-sounding breakthroughs is that they are near-impossible to prove even to other scientists. Take eeStor, which probably wouldn’t consider itself a scam, but which promised huge gains for its ultracapacitor yet never publicly proved its technology nor showed off or commercialized its tech.

Even for a seasoned energy investor, it’s hard to distinguish between an outright scam, a really bad idea and a high-risk project. The majority of some investors’ green portfolios could be allocated to super high-risk startups, which probably won’t work and won’t ever make money. But those wouldn’t necessarily be scams — just investors with a high tolerance for risk (and it’s easier if it’s high risks with other people’s money).

There’s also just the reality that energy entrepreneurs that are trying to crack the very difficult greentech world are sometimes a little “out there,” to begin with. As Bill Gates put it, the world needs hundreds of “crazy energy entrepreneurs” that think their idea alone can solve the energy problem. The energy problem is really, really hard, and will need quite a few amazing breakthroughs to deliver progress.

That’s the real problem with the outright energy scams. The crazy energy entrepreneurs we so need and love won’t be able to get the funding or partnerships they need if the bad apples tarnish the sector. But at the end of the day, they do make for some pretty fun reading.

  1. “why are there so many snake oil salesmen and scam artists in the energy space?”

    Because lots of money was made available for companies making outrageous claims, and there was insufficient due diligence performed to ensure that those who got money deserved it. This of course encourage more scammers, and here we are.

    RR

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    1. So true. I forgot to mention how government incentives influence this ecosystem as well. Thanks for the add!

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  2. Kent Beuchert Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Apparently Fehrenbacher is unaware that EEStor, which she describes as a fraud, has just enabled ZENN Motors to raise
    several million from new private investors, and that EEStor promises to announce its progress in the near future. Apparently those private investors have learned something about EEStor’s device that warrants their investments. Looks like Fehrenbacher has not been paying attention to the latest news about battery/capacitor technology.

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    1. Yeah I saw Zenn’s D filing for having raised $254K and thought it was too small to write anything on. If eeStor actually ever does anything I will be super stoked.

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    2. All the Zenn raise proves is that the conditions she described in her article are still operational today. EEStor raises money from smart people with high risk tolerance, EEStor promises meaningful progress in the near future, repeat as long/often as possible in the hopes they actually can prove a breakthrough.

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  3. The other side: In the US, we spend more than $400 billion (not million) per year on gasoline. If EV’s could save just $100 billion per year, that would be an enormous amount of money, and easily justify large investments in infrastructure each year. Many times than what would be necessary to build 2 or 3 infrastructures, if perhaps the first or second versions become outdated and/or need to be retrofitted with newer technology.

    Consider how much money we loose by not investing in our future.

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  4. Ryan Stanton-Wyman Thursday, April 26, 2012

    An unfortunate truth in the energy industry (and any industry, for that matter) is that the individuals who understand the necessary solutions and technology best are often horrendous marketers. On the other hand, the best marketers (like Matria’s Mr. Wragg) usually struggle to understand even the basic fundamentals that govern the market. Worse yet, some willfully mislead investors for their own selfish benefit. I’m not quite sure in which camp the “Water Atomic Engine” falls.
    Nevertheless, it’s up to us to stand up and call them out. Otherwise, as you mention, a few bad apples may ruin it for the rest of us.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have return to reading Rocketjet’s hilarious, if not ironic, explanation of how Mitt Romney’s family “stole” wealth from the Nelson family during the 1930s. Thieves who complain about other thieves is true comedy.
    Thank you for the Thursday morning funnies.

    -Ryan

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  5. Muahahaaaa. i had a meeting with Matinee Energy, set up for me by some unsuspecting colleagues. What a debacle!

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  6. Excellent article as usual Katie. The suckers are fueled by belief in their chance to get rich quick or by available money needing new green venture opportunities.

    Part of what is interesting about your article is that we are in a new era of internet due diligence. The eestor’s of the world have as many disbelievers as believers and the internet provides us all with a voice in the debate.

    The Gov’t yes DOE types are trying to help weed out the questionable claimers by testing real prototype products. For example, http://www.sandia.gov/ess/docs/pr_conferences/2011/2-srferre_111021_testing.pdf

    These same folks at DOE were invited by eestor to a demonstration of eestor’s product. When DOE said they would be happy to test eestor’s capacitor, but they would only do it with DOE’s equipment and at Sandia’s Lab, then Dick Weir eestor’s inventor stopped communicating about a demonstration.

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  7. Robert Murphy Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Could this article be the beginnings of a great future post on ’10 Red Flags for Crowd-Sourced Cleantech Investors’? For instance…

    1) Any company whose formal documents refer to ‘Big Oil’ as a proper noun, particularly if followed by ‘doesn’t want you to know about’

    2) A business plan where the corporate end game includes space flight

    3) 85% of companies dealing with biofuels (although has filling up on snake oil actually been tried? ‘Put A Cobra In Your Tank’ would be quite catchy).

    4) An expected shareholder return of ‘world peace’, unless their technology for unlimited energy also provides unlimited water, minerals, and cultural tolerance.

    And so on…

    Admittedly that might mean that crowd-funders might miss out on investing in the 1/1000 companies run by a successful ‘crazy energy entrepreneur’. On the other hand, that also means 999/1000 fewer people have to have an awkward conversation with their spouse about where their rainy day fund went.

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  8. Honest Salesman Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Hi Katie, Thanks for usual propoganda that we all can count on ! Cello case is confidential !! Keep printing the lies and you will be sued……thanks for your useless input.

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    1. You’re going to sue me for mentioning that the company went to court? How do you figure? Going to be hard to scrub the Internet of that:

      http://www.al.com/news/press-register/metro.ssf?/base/news/1245316587247600.xml&coll=3

      http://blog.al.com/live/2009/06/attorneys_in_alternative_fuels.html

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    2. Honest Salesman, NanoCarbons is waiting to be sued by EESTor.

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  9. Albert Hartman Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Charlatan stories are always great reads. I had forgotten about eestor! BTW, I wonder whatever happened to the Steorn/Orbo perpetual energy folks.

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    1. OMG! I was trying to remember the name of those guys and couldn’t for the life of me. Thanks!

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  10. FACT:
    8 years after Mr. Weir submitted EESU patent (7466536) to the patent office (2004), there is no EESU meeting the patent specs and there never will be. You should know that issued patent 7466536 is provable inequitable conduct, a fraud on the patent office.

    In 2009 conference call Dick Weir CEO of EESTOR states he is going into eesu production 4th quarter 2009. You can listen to the conference call @ http://www.4all.com/uploads/DW_Confcall_jun2009.mp3
    Make sure you take notes of what comes out of Mr. Weir’s mouth. Then compare those notes to the new imminent progress report from EESTOR which Mr. Kofman is looking forward to. I can guarantee you there will be no EESU meeting the patent (7466536) specs delivered to ZMC. EESTOR Fraud continues.

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