How Florida Can Restore Confidence in the Solar Industry
By Daniel Stevens
Last November, Floridians voted down a controversial ballot measure that would have limited expansion of rooftop solar panels. While voters declared their support for green energy, the industry’s customers have been telling a different story. In hundreds of complaints filed with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, customers across the state reported how they have been mistreated by companies selling rooftop solar panels. If solar energy is going to expand responsibly, the Attorney General needs to intervene and hold the industry’s bad actors accountable.
That’s why earlier this year, my organization, Campaign for Accountability asked Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to open an investigation into the misleading marketing practices of companies that install solar panels. CfA’s complaint followed previous work by two consumer watchdog groups, Public Citizen and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), which cautioned federal authorities about the industry.
Last August, Public Citizen, submitted comments to the Federal Trade Commission, criticizing the arbitration clauses included in rooftop solar contracts and noted that solar leasing arrangements pose “significant financial risks for families.” Similarly, NCLC submitted comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also in August, urging the agency to take action to protect low-income consumers citing, among other things, a dramatic increase in leases for solar panels “and extensive complaints of false claims as to the savings with such panels and the terms of the leases.”
After Public Citizen and NCLC pointed out these problems, CfA asked the Florida Attorney General’s Office for copies of all consumer complaints about solar panels dating back to 2011. The complaints revealed a widespread pattern of apparent fraud and abuse by solar companies.
Consumers detailed how solar companies deceived them about the true costs of installing solar panels, incorrectly told them they’d receive tax credits, greatly exaggerated the savings they might realize on utility costs, performed shoddy installation and then failed to respond to complaints, and in a significant number of cases appear to have run credit checks on unsuspecting customers, negatively affecting their credit.
Many complainants noted that companies appeared to be targeting Florida’s senior population. An 85-year-old man wrote that a company promised him a 60 percent reduction in his monthly energy bill through a program aimed at seniors and would incur no other costs. A friend intervened, however, after realizing the man would be liable for $12,000 in project costs.
In another incident, the son of an elderly couple complained that his parents had been pressured into signing a contract after a company representative told them they had already agreed to the deal and had no choice.
These tactics appears to violate the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, which provides broad protection against “deceptive,” “unfair,” and “unconscionable” business acts or practices. The law includes enhanced penalties for anyone who directs such practices at senior citizens. Companies in Florida that have promised their products will lower utility costs or deliver additional tax credits may have violated the law.
As a supporter of the environment, and someone who believes our country must take action to slow global climate change, I am hopeful that Attorney General’s Office can step in now to clean up the rooftop solar industry before it is too late. Customers in Florida need to have confidence that they can buy or lease solar panels from honest brokers.
Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.