Sunday, December 4, 2022

Predatory residential solar installers could sow mistrust, advocates fear

Rooftop solar panels. (VCU Capital News Service)

Norfolk resident John Luker knew that when he started asking solar companies how much it would cost to put panels on his roof, price estimates would vary. 

But he didn’t know they’d range from $17,560 to $66,888 over the life of the installation.  

As part of research for the Chesapeake Bay Group of the Sierra Club Virginia chapter, Luker — who serves as the group’s chair — collected quotes from 20 solar companies to see just what they were charging the average Norfolk customer. 

What he found was little consistency, with firms charging as little as $2.10 to as much as $5.62 per watt. Warranties varied widely, as did maintenance and service commitments. 

“Everybody has a different price, but the prices are so different and some people are so outrageous and the service so terrible,” Luker said. 

With solar becoming increasingly common in Virginia as a result of growing worries about climate change and loosened residential solar laws passed in 2020, concerns are also increasing that an influx of predatory solar companies into the state could leave consumers saddled with heavy costs and sow distrust in the energy source. 

“Some people are getting solar that’s too expensive — it’s three times the price it should be,” said Ruth McElroy Amundsen, an engineer and solar investor who in 2019 founded the Norfolk Solar Qualified Opportunity Fund to help put solar on businesses and nonprofits in economically distressed areas. “That kind of stuff spreads. They’re not going to say, ‘This contractor is bad.’ They’re going to say, ‘Solar is not worth it.’ ” 

Aaron Sutch, the Atlantic Southeast region director for nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, said his group has heard an increasing number of complaints in all 12 states where they work. 

“There’s a lot of things that can vary and there’s some wiggle room” when it comes to cost, he said. “It’s not to say that the cheapest price is always the best, but you should have a reasonable range and a reasonable level of service.” 

Asked if the Better Business Bureau’s Central Virginia office had received any solar company complaints, president and CEO Barry Moore said no, but “it’s going to start happening.” 

“There’s so much money in it,” he said. “It’s like the wild, wild West coming out.” 

Solar advocates say there are precautions consumers can take. Luker, Amundsen, Sutch and Moore all recommended getting multiple quotes and as complete information as possible before signing a contract. Solar United Neighbors offers indications of possible solar scams and will review customer quotes, while the Hampton Roads Climate Hub developed by Luker, Amundsen and others also offers tips. 

But as solar installations and the companies that sell and maintain them proliferate, Amundsen said statewide consumer protections may also be necessary. 

South Carolina, she noted, instituted consumer protection regulations in 2021 that require solar lease agreements to include certain information, to specify certain details in companies’ marketing materials and establish a formal complaint process. Nevada has a Renewable Energy Bill of Rights for customers. California requires utility customers to sign a consumer protection guide before connecting a residential solar system to the grid. 

“I don’t feel like we have anything that clear in our state,” she said. 

Dylan Kowal, a consultant with Convert Solar, a solar provider in Virginia Beach, agreed. Customers have a lot of confusion on how solar works, he said. “I do think there need to be consumer protections in place. I wish there was a more honest third party.”

The scope of the problem in Virginia is unclear. In interviews, numerous people told the Mercury they had seen or experienced predatory contracts, but Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson for Attorney General Jason Miyares, said the office was “not able to comment on anything that may or may not be subject to investigation.” 

“We encourage Virginia consumers who have a complaint against a business or suspect that they have been victimized by a scam to contact Attorney General Miyares’s Consumer Protection Section,” she wrote in an email. 

Sutch said that the problems emerging around residential solar installations aren’t unique to the industry. 

“The good news is [solar] is going more mainstream,” he said. “The bad thing is, just like anything else, more actors are entering the market.” 

Given the high costs of installations and the long time frames contracts often cover, however, risks are particularly high. And Kim Sudderth, chair of the Norfolk NAACP’s Environmental Justice Committee, said she worries about the targeting of disadvantaged communities, many of which are disproportionately impacted by climate change. 

“Essentially this is price gouging,” she said. “We are in a climate crisis.” 

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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