February 10, 2017

Read the Fine Print and Proceed with Caution

Heath Knakmuhs

Without question, solar is a beneficial and growing component of America’s secure and diverse energy future.  In fact, miraculous advancements in technology have continued to reduce the costs of electricity generated from the sun, spurring a dramatic increase in solar installations.  However, the exponential growth of this industry has come at a price for some homeowners who either failed to read the fine print, or were never provided with such fine print in the first place. 

Do you typically even read the fine print when you sign a contract?  Many of us do not because we know that contracts for the purchase of a house, a car, or other significant investments have been standardized over the years to ensure that both the seller – and the buyer – are protected in the transaction.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with rooftop solar, where each individual installer, lessor, or seller is subject to their own contractual terms.  This is because rooftop solar companies are typically not regulated by federal or state agencies.  At times, there may actually be no fine print to read at all.

In the case of unscrupulous purveyors of rooftop solar panels, the buried (or even non-existent) fine print can be very costly, and potentially life-changing; and I don’t mean in a good way.  While your local utility company’s rates and terms of service are strictly regulated by both state utility commissions and federal government agencies, the lack of oversight for purveyors of rooftop solar means that those companies are typically not obligated to follow consumer protection rules or fair advertising guidelines.  This regulatory vacuum has made the rooftop solar industry a virtual “wild west” where pretty much anything goes.  Thus, before you go solar, remember these two words:  consumer beware! 

While it is too late for those who have already been taken advantage of by misleading rooftop solar ‘deals’, state officials and federal legislators are beginning to take notice.  Two weeks ago, the Campaign for Accountability asked Florida’s attorney general to investigate numerous false and misleading acts perpetrated by rooftop solar installers.  In addition, three congressional Democrats last month sought the engagement of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to curtail what they view as “unethical business practices in the rooftop solar industry.”  This most recent letter reiterates concerns previously voiced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the CFPB.  Even pro-solar lawmakers are speaking out in opposition to the unscrupulous business practices they have observed from the rooftop solar industries in their states. 

Fortunately, the solar industry is taking steps to clarify the complicated process of purchasing your own rooftop power plant.  Earlier this week, the Solar Energy Industries Association introduced a standardized disclosure form that seeks to reduce the “grey” and clarify the black and white terms of a rooftop solar purchase.  Unfortunately, however, the form applies only to the PURCHASE of new rooftop solar facilities.  The more complicated – and often more problematic – LEASING of rooftop solar remains without oversight or standardized terms and conditions.    

The old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” certainly applies to rooftop solar.  Low monthly lease payments and promises of reduced electricity bills are only part of the story.  Forgone tax benefits, significant liens on your home, and the reduction in value and creation of roadblocks preventing the sale of your home fill in the rest of the picture.  If you choose to go solar, be smart about it. 

Be vigilant.  Read the fine print if it is there, and demand to see it if it is not.  Until regulations and standardized contracting catch up with the burgeoning rooftop solar industry, work with your neighbors to ensure that no one falls victim to a rooftop solar scam that could ultimately turns the lights out on an individual’s most valuable possession.