U.S. House Energy Committee expresses outrage over solar sales tactics


The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Republican members sent a joint letter to the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office (LPO), on December 7, 2023. They expressed “outrage” over a reported incident of an elderly man allegedly being pressured into a 25-year solar lease by a salesperson. The joint letter is being used to highlight the aggressive or potentially misleading sales tactics that are sometimes employed by contractors of national residential solar companies.

This incident reflects a complex situation. Republicans in Congress are seeking to undermine the transition to local, clean electricity by signaling “outrage”, meanwhile, solar sales companies are grappling with the challenges posed by commission-motivated private contractors, whose sales tactics strain the industry’s reputation.

Residential solar companies have had lawsuits initiated by state attorneys general in Arizona, New Mexico, and Connecticut, largely due to aggressive sales tactics. These same in-home sales techniques prompted California to mandate a comprehensive 24-page Solar Consumer Protection Guide in 2021.

The Joint Letter, addressed to the LPO’s department head, Jigar Shah, specifically addresses Sunnova’s recently awarded $3 billion loan guarantee. This significant loan from the LPO is earmarked to finance up to 90% of “Project Hestia.” The project’s aim is to broaden access to solar and virtual power plant (VPP) services, particularly for disadvantaged communities that typically struggle to secure financing for residential projects.

Sunnova stands out in the industry for integrating individual residential solar and storage installations into the broader power grid. Despite the initial rejection of their Califlornia microutility, its innovative approach is recognized as cutting edge, and will set precedent for future energy deployments.

The joint letter details allegations of unethical sales practices of a Sunnova contractor. It describes an instance of alleged exploitation: “a door-to-door Sunnova salesman sold her father—who she characterized as in hospice care—a $60,000 solar system for his mobile home shortly before his death.” It also references complaints from a 2019 USA Today article regarding Sunnova’s expanding market in Puerto Rico.

The Committee requests all documents related to Sunnova’s loan approval, previous sales complaints, consumer protection measures, and the company’s financial status. They also inquire about LPO’s oversight of Sunnova’s sales practices.

By the end of the third quarter of 2023, Sunnova had amassed approximately 386,000 customers, adding 37,000 customers in the third quarter alone. The company anticipates that they will have added 135,000 to 145,000 new customers in 2023.

In response to the Committee, Sunnova outlined their position in a letter to investors on December 11, 2023, reaffirming their “commitment to Project Hestia, ethical business practices, and customer service.” The letter cited Sunnova’s role as the primary risk-bearer in the $3 billion loan, its expanded service team, the offering of 25-year warranties, and the operation of a “state-of-the-art Global Command Center” to oversee its numerous solar projects.  

The company specifically mentioned the expansion of its support services in Puerto Rico, where the Global Command Center plays a crucial role, reflecting the island’s growing importance in their business strategy.

Regarding the LPO’s reaction, while no official statement has been released, Jigar Shah of the LPO expressed support for Project Hestia and Sunnova in general via a tweet:

pv magazine USA reached out to Kelsey Hultberg, Sunnova’s executive vice president of communications and sustainability, with several queries about the company’s handling of customer support challenges over the past year.

Sunnova’s answer:Sunnova is deeply committed to maintaining the highest standards of customer service, as evidenced by our strong customer ratings on platforms such as Google (4 out of 5 stars), EnergySage (5 out of 5 stars), Best Company (4.4 out of 5 stars), and Trust Pilot (3.8 out of 5 stars).Sunnova operates primarily through a network of trusted local dealers who handle origination and installation. Within our contractual agreements with these dealers, we establish clear performance standards. Among these standards is a stringent commitment to complying with our Dealer Code of Conduct, as well as adhering to all relevant laws and best practices in the solar industry. We maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards any salespersons who attempt to take advantage of our customers. Our Dealer Code of Conduct, particularly in the Marketing and Sales Practices section, explicitly outlines the ethical behavior we expect from our dealers when engaging with customers. Additionally, we have integrated the SEIA Solar Business Code into our Dealer Code of Conduct, reinforcing our commitment to ethical business practices.In the event of any allegations, we conduct thorough investigations and ensure that appropriate actions are taken. When issues occur in the sales process, Sunnova has a swift and thorough process in place to flag the contract, and in some cases, remove the dealer salesperson or dealer from our platformWe have made substantial investments in enhancing our customer service operations, developing a robust process to address customer concerns effectively. Our dedicated issues resolution team receives and assigns cases to experienced case managers who engage directly with customers until a resolution is reached.  These case managers work cross functionally with teams across Sunnova to ensure we take every customer situation seriously.Furthermore, we are dedicated to safeguarding the interests of our customers. If we determine, through our underwriting or contract validation processes, that a salesperson has acted inappropriately, we take immediate action by canceling the contract. Similarly, if a customer contacts our customer care team to cancel their contract while the system remains uninstalled, we facilitate the cancellation. In some cases, we may even allow cancellations beyond the standard right-to-cancel window as long as the system remains uninstalled.The questions pv magazine USA asked were all very numerically focused, as we wished to understand the statistics behind contracts that were signed and canceled.
This article was amended to provide Sunnova’s answers to our questions.


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