Solar 101: Go solar, but go with your eyes open


By providing CO2-free power without polluting our air, water, or soil, solar is uniquely virtuous among energy industries. But like all industries that involve people, consumers need to pay close attention to protect themselves.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utility Commission published a 24-page Solar Consumer Protection Guide. All homeowners must sign it before they are allowed to buy a solar powered project.

Buyer beware: The California PUC published a consumer guide to going solar.

The document’s main purpose is to protect homeowners against aggressive door-to-door salespeople who push for digital signatures on handheld tablets. It advises customers against signing contracts before they have reached a comprehensive understanding of the project and its full implications.

Here at pv magazine USA, we believe the most important step in the Solar 101 series is finding the right contractor for your project. Step #3 of the California guide – “Find a qualified solar provider” – agrees with us.

The document effectively walks consumers through the pros and cons of different types of financing and leasing options. It is peppered with warnings against unscrupulous sales attempts to stretch the truth. It advises consumers to be particularly wary of “free solar power” offers. What does ‘”free” actually mean though?


The CPUC guide debunks some popular claims about residential solar.

Typically, “free solar” refers to a solar lease or power purchase agreement. In these kinds of arrangements, the homeowner agrees to trade their roof for a 10-30% reduction in electricity costs. The panels are owned and maintained by the lessor (not the homeowner). Keep in mind that your electricity bill will not go to zero if you install one of these third-part-owned systems.

Two other areas covered by the California document include making sure you compare your finance options and understanding how solar savings work.

Note that there are at least two negatives to taking on these “free solar” deals. First, you won’t gain all of the financial benefits that accrue if you actually own the system yourself. You’ll save 10-30% off of your electricity bill , but will lose out on tax credits and any state incentives.

Second, your home’s value won’t necessarily increase with the solar installation, because the system is owned by someone else. In fact, the added complication of a solar lease – including the need for an additional credit check – has the potential to deter some prospective home buyers.

And take note: Both federal and state laws stipulates a three-day cooling off period for those who have purchased products from door-to-door salespeople. Don’t be afraid to exercise your rights if you find yourself getting cold feet.

Technology and company risk

Weddle & Sons Tesla Solar Roof installation.

A second risk of solar power comes with new technology and new companies.

For instance, sometimes the hardware you want isn’t available when you want it, or the price you were originally quoted (and signed a contract for) is no longer valid.

Tesla’s Solar Roof is a beautiful product and its image may eventually represent the residential solar industry. However, the company has had challenges scaling the product for mass deployment, as well as meeting long-standing building material quality standards. This has led to some customers experiencing long wait periods, while others have had their purchases cancelled.

Additionally, some installations have taken weeks – versus a couple of days – to finish, as the company learns how to deploy the product. Lastly, some customers have complained about seeing the price of their project significantly increase, even after signing a contract at a specific dollar amount.

Selling newly minted technologies with innovative business models means that solar companies often take on advanced risk.

A 200 kW installation of Solyndra Solar Panels in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

For example, this author installed a Solyndra solar panel plus Satcon solar inverter project in 2011. Shortly after installation, both companies went out of business. Fortunately, the hardware has been very reliable over the past decade. However, it has become challenging to find replacement modules when the occasional falling quahog clobbers a solar panel.

What’s more, solar installers can go out of business from time to time. There are thousands of installers across the nation, both large and small. That range of options offers yet another reason to meticulously consider your operations and maintenance contract before signing.

Buyer beware

Like any other product, it’s important to pay attention to where your money is going. When accepting offers from door-to-door salespeople, take plenty of time before signing anything. Take time to research the many details involved in your solar purchase. Shop around before you drop thousands of dollars or lease your roof. When choosing companies and hardware, make a concerted effort to identify their limitations and fallibility.

Addressing a comprehensive list of questions on residential solar, pv magazine USA’s Solar 101 focuses on the tools and knowledge which will help consumers confidently answer their solar questions.

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