COMMENTARY: Solar industry must clean up its act

By: Daniel Stevens, The Monitor, February 1, 2017

President Donald Trump’s first-line Cabinet appointments suggest he will be committed to the oil and gas industry, as opposed to the clean energy sector championed by former President Barack Obama.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s record as a climate change skeptic distinguishes him from every energy chief in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. On Tuesday, Perry’s nomination for Secretary of Energy was backed by a majority of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The nomination is expected to be voted by the full Senate in the coming weeks and he is expected to be confirmed.

The new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil. And Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who will soon lead the Environmental Protection Agency, is a known shill for the industry, repeatedly slapping his letterhead and signature on letters written by energy companies.

In this new environment, if they hope to make greater inroads with American consumers, clean energy sources, like rooftop solar, will have their work cut out for them. Unfortunately, while solar energy is a critical component of moving away from reliance on fossil fuels, the industry is beset by bad actors taking advantage of Texas homeowners by engaging in deceptive trade practices.

Last August, the watchdog group Public Citizen filed comments with the Federal Trade Commission, noting that many clauses in solar contracts pose “significant financial risks for families.” To follow up, my organization, Campaign for Accountability, asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office for consumer complaints about the sale or leasing of rooftop solar panels. We found companies falsely represented the savings the customers would realize from solar power, lured them in with low price quotes that later proved to be false, required them to sign confusing and ultimately inaccurate contracts, and/or performed shoddy installation of the solar panels. Some homeowners complained that after experiencing a change of heart, they attempted to cancel the contracts, but were unable to reach company representatives despite repeated efforts.

Many consumers have lodged complaints against Global Efficient Energy. One reported being promised a savings “at minimum” of 40 percent on energy bills, yet after the solar panels were installed his energy bills decreased by less than 5 percent. Moreover, he never received the promised tax credits and energy rebates, which had weighed into the decision to install the solar panels in the first place. Another elderly homeowner who contracted with the company fretted, “With each and every month that goes by, we are seeing no savings, just extra money going out the window, and we are now stuck with a loan of $15,500. These solar panels were a horrible mistake.”

Other companies also took advantage of the elderly. A 65-year-old woman living on Social Security wrote that Solar City had promised her a signing bonus and an energy credit, but the company had failed to provide her utility company with the information necessary for that credit. She despaired that she had spent, “many hours of sleepless nights worrying about how I am going to pay my huge (energy) bills.”

Based on the many complaints, we asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to open an investigation into the misleading marketing practices of companies that install solar panels on the rooftops of homeowners.

The Texas Trade Practices Act is designed to protect consumers from companies making false or misleading statements regarding prices and cost savings. By falsely representing the savings and rebates customers will receive from solar energy roof panels and the overall impact of solar energy as a more cost-effective energy alternative, rooftop solar companies may have violated the law.

On a nearly daily basis the Trump administration is rolling back efforts to protect our environment, yet these cases are giving the entire rooftop solar industry a bad name, which isn’t helpful at the best of times and certainly is not right now. To prevail in a political environment far more favorable to oil and gas, solar needs to put the “clean” back in clean energy. This could help stave off efforts to kill large-scale adoption of solar 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.

This column includes information from The Associated Press.