They’re back: Campaign for Accountability asks FTC to investigate solar industry

The Campaign for Accountability (CfA) has the solar industry in its sights again.

After putting together test complaints in TexasCaliforniaFlorida, and Oregon “to investigate false and misleading acts in the marketing and sale or lease of solar panels”, the self-proclaimed “watchdog organization that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life” has now asked the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate what it says are a pattern of unscrupulous sales practices in the residential solar market.

“Solar companies are using misleading sales practices to trick homeowners into buying or leasing solar panels,” said Daniel Stevens, CfA executive director. “The FTC has recognized the problem, but has yet to act. The FTC should open an investigation and hold companies that violate the law accountable.”

In a six-page, extensively footnoted letter (though the majority of footnotes relate to one public meeting the FTC held in June 2016), CfA highlights nine specific complaints against solar companies between 2012-2016 out of the more than 1,219 complaints it received from the FTC under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The footnote highlighting the request vaguely notes, “The allegations in a number of the complaints released were unrelated to solar panels.”

“A review of consumer complaints filed with FTC reveals many of these companies have engaged in false and misleading acts in the marketing and sale or lease of solar panels, in apparent violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” the group said in its release.

It should be noted the footnote does not specify how many of the complaints do deal with solar panels or solar companies, which could leave a casual reader with the impression that the vast majority of the complaints concerned solar companies. While pv magazine can’t independently confirm they are not – which it couldn’t do without reviewing all 1,219 complaints itself – the vagueness of the footnote suggests CfA may be employing a logical fallacy called “begging the question” to bolster its complaint.

While CfA alleges “many” solar companies are deceiving consumers, it only cites complaints against five companies, four of which are national residential installers. Given that there are more than 1 million residential installations (as CfA notes in their letter), it’s not surprising some customers are dissatisfied with their installations. It would also not be surprising if there were some companies using unscrupulous business practices, especially when door-to-door sales tactics were the rule rather than the exception in how solar was sold.

But national companies Vivint Solar and SolarCity are moving away from door-to-door sales as a tactic (except in Utah) as the industry matures, bringing their sales forces in-house. Recent reports by GTM Research suggest these national companies are leading an overall shift in the way solar is sold. And in April, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) launched what it touted as a national consumer education campaign “to inform and protect solar consumers while further simplifying the process of going solar.”

CfA’s website lists five priorities that it focuses on in its “watchdog” role:

Federal accountability;

  • State oversight;
  • Corporate responsibility;
  • Consumer protection; and
  • Investigating the solar industry.

An examination of the last two, however, reveal that they are essentially the same. Though it suggests it has exposed false marketing practices in multiple industries, it appears to have focused on but two: Google and the solar industry. And currently, this is what shows under the heading “Consumer Protection”:

Attempts to discover who is funding CfA and its campaigns were unsuccessful.