Catastrophic Texas Storm Provides Opening for Predatory Rooftop Solar Companies
By Sacha Sloan
In February, Texas faced one of the deadliest and costliest weather disasters in the state’s history. Arctic-level temperatures ravaged the state’s water systems, coronavirus vaccination efforts, and power grid. As Texans recover from the devastation, the prospect of soaring energy bills and the failure of the state power grid likely will potentially induce many residents to seek out alternatives for home energy production, including rooftop solar panels. A move towards greater reliance on solar energy has benefits; compared to its natural gas and coal counterparts, solar is better for the environment and public health. Yet, as Texans contemplate switching to solar, they must be wary of predatory companies ready to exploit those uneducated about the potential pitfalls.
Even before the February storm, Texas was undergoing a solar energy upswing. Now, online traffic to solar company websites is surging. The fully deregulated nature of Texas’s energy retail market at the state level makes it particularly competitive: as of 2017, over 90% of electricity consumers had switched providers at least once. Although intended to bolster freedom and choice, many in the past weeks have argued that the state’s free-for-all energy market structure actually aggravated the destruction wrought by the storm. Unregulated, power companies appear to have little incentive to winterize their facilities, and when supply chains consequently fail amid the acute crisis, the financial repercussions may fall disproportionately on consumers.
The same lack of oversight opens the door for abusive rooftop solar companies looking to fleece Texans through exploitative contracts, false savings promises, and substandard services with no recourse. The state’s regulatory shortcomings, coupled with the growing solar market, make Texas an increasingly ideal target for the solar swindlers that have plagued U.S. consumers for years.
Over four years ago, after investigating Texan customer complaints about rooftop solar companies, my organization, watchdog group Campaign for Accountability, called on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate whether rooftop solar companies were engaged in deceptive marketing practices that may violate Texas law.
Through open records requests, CfA discovered that complainants identified twelve solar companies that appeared to hold pattern of providing poor or inadequate service, falsely representing the savings the customers would realize from solar power, luring consumers in with low price quotes that later proved to be false, requiring customers to sign confusing and ultimately inaccurate contracts, and/or performing shoddy installation. Homeowners also reported being unable to cancel contracts or contact their solar provider representatives to discuss any problems.
Since then, the attorney general’s office has acted against some offenders. In 2018, the office sued the worst offender, Global Efficient Energy, and its CEO’s other solar companies, successfully banning some of them from operating in Texas, instituting strict accountability protocols on others, and retrieving nearly $2 million for aggrieved homeowners. In June 2020, Paxton’s office obtained a successful injunction against another rooftop solar company, Apex Home Energy Solutions, LLC, preventing the company from continuing to deceive and defraud Texans.
The threat posed by predatory rooftop solar companies still looms. To this day, CfA continues to receive frequent complaints from swindled customers across the U.S. Sadly, certain solar companies frequently target the most vulnerable: the elderly and those for whom English is not their native language. After power outages that hit poor and historically marginalized communities in Texas the hardest, bad actors likely will look for opportunities to take advantage of them. Rooftop solar is not a panacea for what ails Texas. Consumers must remain vigilant as they seek relief from the state’s disastrous energy marketplace and the attorney general’s office must be quick to act against unscrupulous rooftop solar companies.
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.