Can California save solar in the age of Trump?

By: Daniel Stevens, Bakersfield Californian, January 13, 2017

Looking at President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, it appears the production of clean energy — like wind and solar — will not be a priority.

Trump’s Energy Department nominee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has questioned whether top climate scientists are manipulating data, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson runs the world’s largest oil company, and the presumptive head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (also a climate change denier), has sued the agency repeatedly to block clean air regulations.

In this hostile political climate, clean energy producers will need to bring their A-game to fight back against efforts to decimate their industries. Yet, the rooftop solar industry has been creating an environment that may aid Trump and his lieutenants in killing off this important source of clean energy by claiming they are protecting consumers. Sadly, there are many bad actors in the rooftop solar industry misleading and ripping off less financially sophisticated citizens.

Last August, the watchdog group Public Citizen complained to the Federal Trade Commission about consumer protection issues with the rooftop solar industry. Among other things, the group criticized arbitration clauses in solar contracts and noted that solar leasing arrangements pose “significant financial risks for families.”

In the wake of Public Citizen’s comments, my organization made open records requests for consumer complaints filed with the California attorney general’s office and the California Public Utility Commission. The attorney general’s office, where consumers are most likely to file complaints, refused to provide records. The CPUC, however, was more forthcoming.

CPUC records reveal solar companies routinely promised that the installation of rooftop solar panels would result in significant savings in customers’ monthly utility bills, but those savings never materialized. Justifiably angry customers claimed bills increased dramatically — sometimes by as much as 100 percent. One consumer claimed of feeling “cheated” by the solar company Solplicity, which was unwilling to do anything about the resulting higher bills. A SolarCity customer reported paying hundreds of dollars more in energy costs since the installation of solar panels, writing: “It may be a green option but it is most definitely not saving us money.”

Others made similar allegations regarding increased bills against other companies. A Vivint Solar customer stated bitterly, “I feel so exploited … by this company.”

Further, sales personnel use misleading and high-pressure tactics. For example, a representative of SolarCity claimed to be taking over the electric service and raised a false threat of upcoming rolling blackouts that solar could cure.

In addition, many consumers reported receiving numerous, harassing phone calls from solar companies at all hours of the day and night despite having listed their telephone numbers with the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry and even requesting that the companies stop calling.

These practices may not merely be shady, they may be illegal. California’s Unfair Competition Law provides broad protection for state residents against “unlawful,” “unfair,” and “fraudulent” business acts or practices. By falsely representing the savings customers would receive from solar energy roof panels and the overall impact of solar energy as a more cost-effective energy alternative, companies may be violating the law.

The complaints also reflect a harsh reality: some unscrupulous solar companies are taking advantage of vulnerable populations, making the impact that much more devastating. Those living on fixed incomes or with low-incomes find themselves with higher monthly utility costs and loans that often exceed what they can afford to pay, thereby plunging them into a cycle of debt.

Late last year, my organization urged the California Attorney General’s office to investigate this problem. Now, that former Rep. Xavier Becerra — who had a record in Congress of supporting clean energy — is taking over as the top law enforcement official in the state, he has the opportunity to crack down on bad actors preying on those California consumers who are least able to stand up for themselves and help clean up the rooftop solar industry. His efforts could help stave off efforts by the new administration to kill off large-scale adoption of clean energy technologies in the name of consumer protection.

 Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.