After a deluge of good news in recent months – sky-high employment numbers, high-profile corporate installations and a potentially revolutionary solar-roofing product – one might think it’s time for the solar industry to have an extended moment in the sun.
Which makes a letter filed by the Campaign for Accountability (CfA) with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum alleging sleazy sales tactics by many of the state’s residential solar installers an entirely unwelcome cloud racing across a seemingly clear sky.
CfA, a public watchdog group dedicated to exposing “misconduct and malfeasance in public life,” filed a 103-page letter, including copies of the solar-consumer complaints, with Rosenblum yesterday. The letter says the group had reviewed 58 complaints since 2012 (an average of 1.2 per month over the period) and had found rampant instances of companies that “have engaged in false and misleading acts in the marketing and sale or lease of solar panels, in apparent violation of Oregon law.”
It is notable that the majority of those 58 complaints were against one large national solar installer.
“Solar companies are using misleading sales practices to trick Oregon homeowners into buying or leasing solar panels.,” said Daniel Stevens, CfA’s executive director. “While the Attorney General’s office has assisted individual consumers, this problem appears widespread enough to merit a more systemic inquiry.”
At press time, it’s unclear whether Rosenblum will open the requested state-wide investigation.
Questions about solar sales tactics aren’t limited to Oregon. According to a survey conducted by EnergySage and pv magazine, more than half of the 360 experienced solar companies surveyed (53%) reported that their largest obstacle in closing sales is the confusion created by their competitors and its impact on consumer confidence overall.
EnergySage’s Founder and CEO Vikram Aggarwal wrote last September that “despite all [solar’s] momentum, many homeowners still struggle to distinguish a good deal from just a good sales pitch and, as with other big-ticket purchases, an uninformed buyer is at greater risk to pay more for less.”
“Many of the industry’s largest solar companies and lead generation services know this, and actively try to exploit unaware homeowners by relying on false advertising and deceptive sales tactics to fuel their growth,” Aggarwal continued.
Tom Kimbis, executive vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), told pv magazine that there is nothing more important to the association and solar installers than protecting consumers from unethical solar sales practices. To that end, the association launched its most ambitious program of consumer education to date yesterday
“Our ability to compete depends on word of mouth recommendations from satisfied consumers,” Kimbis said. “[Yesterday], we launched a national consumer education campaign dedicated to both informing and protecting solar consumers so they can feel confident and comfortable in the decision to go solar.”
“This includes making sure our resources get into the hands of government, nonprofit and community leaders,” he continued. “The disclosures released in kicking off this campaign are critical to ensuring that consumers can fully understand solar transactions – purchases, leases and power purchase agreements.”
Kimbis said Oregon SEIA (OSEIA) received the new campaign’s materials yesterday, as did all other SEIA-affiliated organizations. It also sent the materials to Oregon’s governor, attorney general, public-utility commission chair, and consumer advocate. “We believe that consumer education is a joint responsibility of the state and industry – a true public-private effort to do the right thing,” Kimbis said.
To that end, SEIA members must agree to abide by the ethical standards outlined in the SEIA Solar Business Code, which covers all major aspects of the residential transaction.
SEIA has also developed extensive guidance and resources for both companies and consumers – all available free of charge on its website, including the SEIA Residential Consumer Guide to Solar Power, which helps educate prospective consumers about the solar transaction and the questions they should be asking as they consider going solar.
Lastly, SEIA has developed model contracts and disclosure forms and have established a consumer resolution process so that SEIA can help resolve consumer complaints when they come in.
Anyone can submit a complaint under the Code for consideration by SEIA and, if needed, the appropriate government agency.
“With growth comes responsibility,” Kimbis said. “We want to not only stay ahead of consumer protection issues, but be the leading industry on consumer protection. There’s a lot of growth ahead—and much opportunity for our industry to do even better on consumer issues.”