Go Green the Right Way

Go Green the Right Way
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File

Complaints against rooftop solar companies have skyrocketed in recent years as more Americans have installed solar panels on their rooftops. The complaints, filed by angry customers, reveal how rooftop solar companies exploit consumers – especially low-income and elderly homeowners. Federal regulators have taken notice: The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether rooftop solar companies are playing by the rules.

These problems don’t mean Americans should discount solar altogether, just that home rooftop panels may not be the best delivery system. But thanks to the Department of Energy’s Solar in Your Community initiative, other ways for consumers to benefit from solar energy are in development.

The program, part of President Barack Obama’s Sunshot Initiative, provides millions of dollars in seed funding to nonprofits and communities that are installing solar panels that benefit low- and middle-income residents. The Energy Department is betting that these grants will uncover a sustainable business model that can then be expanded.

The department is currently evaluating proposals submitted by 170 different entities. In January 2019, the department will reward organizations that have the “most scalable, replicable solar business models” with $1 million in prizes, including a $500,000 grand prize.

One promising proposal is the bid submitted by the town of Brunswick, Georgia, which received $15,000 from the Energy Department to build a solar array on a city-owned lot. The town will use the money generated by the sale of energy created by the solar panels to subsidize the energy costs of low-income residents.

Another promising project is the Rays the Valley initiative in Florence, Massachusetts.  Co-op Power, a network of local energy cooperatives, partnered with local nonprofits to compete for government grants and received $60,000 to build large-scale solar arrays and sell ownership to low- and middle-income households.

The arrangement allows those who can’t afford solar panels to reap the benefits of solar without spending tens of thousands of dollars installing their own panels. Rays the Valley plans to build several large solar installations, placing panels on such diverse spots as a large municipal building and a property owned by a nonprofit.

Some members of Congress have raised questions about the Sunshot Initiative.  Last August, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned whether funds from the program were being used to lobby for state subsidies for rooftop solar projects, which could violate a federal anti-lobbying law.  

But it appears most Sunshot projects don’t involve rooftop panels, which is a positive development for low-income consumers.

My organization, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), has been documenting how rooftop solar companies exploit vulnerable populations by reviewing consumer complaints filed against rooftop solar companies with state attorney generals as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). 

Consumers detailed how companies deceived them about the true costs of installing solar panels, lured them in with low price quotes that later proved to be false, required them to sign confusing contracts and promised energy savings that failed to materialize.  These tactics appear to violate state and federal consumer protection laws, and we’ve asked state and federal authorities to investigate.

CfA isn’t alone in raising the alarm. Watchdog group Public Citizen criticized the arbitration clauses in rooftop solar contracts, noting that solar leasing arrangements pose “significant financial risks for families.” Similarly, the National Consumer Law Center urged the CFPB to take action to protect low-income consumers citing, among other things, “extensive complaints of false claims as to the savings with such panels and the terms of the leases.”  And attorneys general from Mississippi to Massachusetts have warned consumers to tread carefully when purchasing rooftop solar panels.

By bypassing rooftop solar companies, programs funded by the Sunshot Initiative help low-income Americans receive the benefits of solar energy and avoid becoming victims of shady business practices. This is a win for consumers and the environment.

Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog based in Washington.

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