Time To Clean Up The Solar Industry -- Stop the Scams

Time To Clean Up The Solar Industry -- Stop the Scams
Austin Bachand/Daily News-Record via AP

Our home states – Mississippi and Massachusetts -- could not be more different when it comes to politics, sports, cuisine and almost everything else. But one thing the two of us share is a long track record of supporting the rooftop solar industry. We believe it is a national priority to produce clean energy and slow the pace of global warming.

While we support solar power, we are both alarmed by growing concerns about the rooftop solar industry using unscrupulous business practices to reel in new customers. This is something we are seeing in cities and towns all across the nation. In fact, the Attorneys Generals of Massachusetts, Mississippi and other four states have taken actions to warn consumers about scams in the rooftop solar business.

What is most concerning is that these bad actors in the solar industry are not just limited to the small players. Some of the biggest players in the rooftop solar industry have raised concerns with consumer watchdogs. Earlier this year, Public Citizen took issue with SolarCity's (now owned by Tesla) use of mandatory arbitration contracts. This is unacceptable for an industry that is heavily subsidized by the American taxpayer.

This year, working together, the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission brought a federal court action against a company that used harassing robocalls that promised energy savings in order to generate sales leads for a solar rooftop company. Known as “lead generators,” these types of companies have raised serious alarms among consumer advocates for years.

The greatest concern we have with the rooftop solar industry is the underhanded tactics some in the industry use to get new customers to sign agreements that put very expensive solar panels on their houses. Generally, the problems lie in what consumers don’t understand about these long-term, legally binding contracts.

First, some people are told that they are eligible for government loans or programs that help pay for the cost of the installment. This is typically false. Rooftop solar panels generally cost around $20,000 for a moderate size home, and the customer is going to have to pay for that one way or another.

Second, solar companies tell prospective customers that utility prices are quickly rising, and because of this trend, energy savings generated by their solar panels will allow them to quickly recoup the cost of the installation. In reality, electricity prices are not shooting up everywhere. In Massachusetts and Mississippi, the cost of residential electricity is actually less in 2016, than it was the previous year. For some solar customers, savings on their utility bills may never fully offset the cost of the solar panels. These customers have been encouraged to make a decision against their family’s financial interest.

Third, putting solar panels on your rooftop can reduce the value of your home by making it harder to sell. If you install these panels, and want to sell your house, new buyers will inherit your lease. Because of this, buyers may demand reimbursement or negotiate a lower purchasing price. For seniors relying on the value of their home in order to retire, this could mean delaying retirement or retiring with a smaller nest egg.

This year alone, the American rooftop solar industry will secure over $100 million dollars in taxpayer subsidies. For that support, the solar companies must be held to the highest standard of consumer protection. Sadly, many are failing. Unless things change quickly, we believe federal and state regulators must take action to curtail these abuses. The rooftop solar industry will only lead the transition to clean energy if we eliminate these unscrupulous practices now.

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