By Daniel Stevens
President Donald Trump has been in office for less than six months, but his all-out assault on green energy is well underway. The president recently signed an executive order to help promote the coal industry, and neither his Energy Secretary, nor his EPA Administrator accept the settled science on climate change. Other appointees have a history of opposing funding for renewable energy research.
Given these daunting challenges, renewable energy companies may find it increasingly difficult to persuade Americans to choose green energy alternatives. Unfortunately, while solar energy is a critical component of moving away from reliance on fossil fuels, the industry is beset by bad actors.
In dozens of complaints filed with the Oregon Attorney General’s Office, customers reported being mistreated by companies selling or leasing rooftop solar panels. If solar energy is going to expand responsibly, the industry’s transgressors need to be held accountable.
That’s why my organization, Campaign for Accountability recently asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum 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 urging the agency to take action to protect low-income consumers citing, among other things, “extensive complaints of false claims as to the savings with such panels and the terms of the leases.”
Following up on this work, CfA has asked many state attorneys general, including Oregon’s, for copies of consumer complaints about solar panels. The complaints revealed a widespread pattern of apparent fraud and abuse by solar companies.
Oregon residents identified numerous companies that lured them in with low price quotes that later proved to be false, misrepresented tax credits solar panel purchasers could expect to receive, required them to sign confusing contracts, and promised significant cost savings on monthly utility bills that failed to materialize. The Wall Street Journal recently reported the SEC has opened an investigation into solar companies after CfA released these complaints.
The worst offender appears to be SolarCity. One customer reported that his monthly bill was nearly double what the company had promised. In a letter to the attorney general he stated, “Solar City should be investigated to see if similar problems exist with other consumers…. It is my contention that Solar City is benefiting financially and using the ignorance of consumers to its advantage.”
The practices of Solar City and other solar companies may violate Oregon law. The state’s Unlawful Trade Practices Act provides broad protection against “making false or misleading representations” and protects consumers from “unconscionable” business acts or practices. By falsely representing the savings and rebates customers would receive from solar energy roof panels and the overall impact of solar energy as a more cost-effective energy alternative, the companies appear to have violated the UTPA.
Further, the complaints reflect the harsh reality that solar companies often take advantage of vulnerable populations: the elderly and those living on fixed incomes. As a result, the impacts of these apparently fraudulent practices are all the more devastating, leaving customers with even higher monthly utility costs and loans that often exceed what they can afford to pay, and plunging them into a cycle of debt.
To be fair, the attorney general’s office frequently has intervened to assist mistreated Oregonians negotiate some sort of settlement. But there are likely many other instances where consumers have been victimized, but were unaware help was available. Given that this seems to be a systemic problem, a broader inquiry and solution are warranted.
Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.