Too good to be true: Know your consumer rights about solar energy
Most solar energy installers are skilled and effective professionals. But if problems arise, Montgomery County residents have a strong ally on their side.
When it comes to preventing problems between businesses and the people they serve, Montgomery County is proud to have a strong track record. The County’s Office of Consumer Protection or OCP is a law-enforcement body that offers advice on a range of consumer-related issues, from home ownership to health club membership.
Specifically, the office and its experts and investigators strive to enforce consumer protection laws that target unfair and deceptive business practices. OCP activities include complaint resolution, law enforcement, education, legislation, advocacy, licensing, and outreach.
A new industry recently gained prominence on OCP’s sprawling radar screen: solar energy.
“The market for solar has taken off relatively recently, but it’s a very complicated purchase,” said OCP Director Eric Friedman. “We’re trying to educate consumers. They may be subject to deception and misrepresentation.”
Helping Solar Run Smoothly
Although the nature of problems and complaints varies widely, in a nutshell, installing solar can be an intricate exercise, even in cases where it’s purportedly simple. Falling technology prices have helped lead to virtual land rushes of investment in solar. Accessible solar energy is a good thing for the planet, and for consumers who can get a better deal on monthly energy bills.
At the same time, fluctuating energy prices and complex contracts can sometimes create the conditions for misunderstanding or even misconduct. In a very few extreme cases, major crimes like fraud have been alleged.
Watch the Consumer Alert Video
The OCP recently created a Consumer Alert for solar installations after receiving an increase in calls about the industry.
Finding the Right Solar Provider
Fortunately, OCP offers a range of guidance and assistance for County consumers thinking about going solar or feeling pain after the fact.
According to Friedman, there are an estimated 194 solar panel companies operating in the state of Maryland alone. The large majority of these companies are reputable outlets that do what they say they are going to do.
A few bad apples have attempted to spoil the barrel for some residents, however. But that’s where OCP can step in.
To pick the right company for you and make sure your installation goes smoothly, consider the following points from the recent OCP document Solar Energy: A Consumer’s Guide:
- Pre-plan. Make sure your roof is a good candidate for solar. Review electric bills and use reputable online calculators (such as that provided by the United States Department of Energy) to get an idea of potential cost and energy savings.
- Pull Permits. Solar installation is a home improvement project, so permits must be obtained before work begins.
- Check Licensing. Make sure your installers are properly licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission.
- Get Recommendations. Ask friends and neighbors about the systems they installed and the results they obtained
- Get Quotes. Three quotes are recommended. However, be aware that each installer may select a different system and set-up, meaning apples-to-apples comparisons are not always possible.
- Do Your Homework. Research bidders and the bids themselves. Sometimes companies will make unrealistic or overly optimistic estimates of time and payback periods. Ask about the process for making repairs and who is obligated to pay electricity bills if/when the system is out of order.
- Purchase vs. Lease vs. Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). When compared with purchasing, a lease or PPA provides lower upfront costs. However, some leases and PPAs require long-term contracts and sizeable down payments in exchange for lower monthly payments. Check contracts for large, annual increases and ask how long the lease lasts.
- Minimum Power. See if your contract requires that the system generates a minimum power each month and, if it doesn’t create that amount, how credits will be apportioned to your monthly electricity bill.
OCP has a number of measures at its disposal to combat bad actors. Some of them are relatively benign, others are more intense.
However, Friedman indicated that OCP has successfully pursued bad-apple solar installers on behalf of County residents.
“We’ve been able to unravel a lot of these,” Friedman said. “[Results include] getting work done or getting a refund. One time, we assisted in bringing criminal prosecution against an installer who stole money.”
The reasons for complaints vary, Friedman added.
“We’ve had cases where the homeowner didn’t know whether they purchased or leased a system,” Friedman said. “We’ve had projects sold by non-licensed home improvement contractor, or not done by a licensed electrician. Some were negligent in doing the work.”
Ultimately, as is often the case with big decisions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
“Many consumer purchases require some homework,” Friedman said. “Think of it like buying a car. Find out the nature of the transaction. Why are you really buying a solar system, and what do you really want to get out of it?”
The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection is available online or at 240-777-3636.
By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer. Read Scott’s other posts on the benefits of environmental peer pressure, birds and climate change, eco-friendly ice rinks, residential solar, and congregational rain gardens.