“Federal and Washington solar programs are making it possible to get solar installed on your home at no cost,” one ad proclaims to Washington residents, and “in an effort to reduce demand on the grid, your utility company will now pay you a credit for going solar.”
If you see a deal like this one, it could well be a scam. While solar power is a great investment that can pay for itself in the longer term and federal and state provide support for solar power for some consumers, solar panel installation is usually not free and utility companies are not providing free solar power.
As solar power has become more popular and the number of people in Washington installing solar panels has risen rapidly, the number of misleading ads has increased too. “You may have noticed an uptick in ads pitching rooftop solar,” Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) noted. “Some of the sales pitches contain dubious or potentially misleading claims.” In Washington, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office told OPB that its consumer protection division tallied nearly a hundred complaints since 2019 about the solar power sector.
As solar installer Puget Sound Solar put it, “we’ve seen the emergence of predatory, aggressive and unethical solar sales companies making false claims and promises in their marketing and sales pitches. This happens with new industries and solar is attracting its share of scam artists whose primary goal is separating you and your money. The scammers aren’t concerned with the environment, your financial well-being, the quality of their equipment and installations, or customer service.”
As one example, a retiree with a limited income told Solar Washington that she was pressured into taking out a loan that will be hard to repay. “The loan officer on the phone was pretty aggressive,” she said, “and I e-signed the papers right there, giving me no time to consider things.” She was also told she would qualify for a big tax rebate even though she does not pay enough taxes to take full advantage of the federal tax rebate.
What can make it difficult to spot ads or promotions that are false is that they may contain just enough grains of truth to make them seem accurate. Some promotions with headlines proclaiming, “free solar”, for example, explain when you read the full ad that it’s actually solar with zero down payment, so that there is no cost initially – even though you’ll pay for the solar installation later. “While we don’t believe these “Free Solar” ads are a scam,” solar contractor Artisan Electric observed, “our opinion is that they may be misleading.” And there are plenty of outright false ads too.
Ads may misrepresent rebates, credits or incentives, implying falsely that current incentives are expiring soon to pressure customers into closing deals sooner than necessary, or that the customer will qualify for bigger credits or rebates than is possible in their financial or energy-consumption situation.
If you are considering installing solar, you need to get accurate information and choose a reliable installer. Your electric utility can help you understand what your energy needs are so that your quote is for the right-sized equipment. It is essential for consumers to get multiple quotes, fully evaluate the proposals from these companies, and check to make sure the best candidate is a reputable firm. Review the company’s rating and read comments about it on the Better Business Bureau website. You can also check Washington Labor and Industry website to make sure the company’s license is active.
A variety of for-profit sources provide additional information on fraud, and some also have crowd-sourced reviews of solar companies. Solar system installer Western Solar, for example, said that increasingly common social media ads proclaiming free solar, as well as high-pressure door-to-door sales pitches, have led it to provide clarification and help combat misinformation about how solar works. The company has put together a list of the top claims which raise either red flags or caution signs and a set of accurate information to help consumers find the true facts. EnergySage displays comments on different installers and materials. They can be viewed as a resource for local pricing comparisons from recent solar installations that were contracted through their platform.
Local governments in Washington have also put together resources to help consumers. For instance, the City of Richland suggests on its website that consumers “do your homework, and get balanced information from several sources. Talk to others who have PV systems. Research and investigate the contractor. Get estimates and quotes from more than one reputable, licensed and insured solar installation contractor. Read and understand the fine print before you sign any contract.”
Finally, make sure you understand what incentives, credits or rebates you qualify for before making a commitment. Check Solar Washington’s solar incentives page for the latest information and talk to your utility about net metering.
If You’re a Victim of a Scam, Get Help
If you suspect that you are the victim of a scam or a deceptive company that installed your solar panels, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Washington Attorney General’s office. They “enforces the Consumer Protection Act and other statutes to help keep the Washington marketplace free of unfair and deceptive practices. The division investigates and files legal actions to stop unfair and deceptive practices, recovers refunds for consumers, seeks penalties against offending entities, and recovers costs and fees to ensure that wrongdoers pay for their actions.” Additionally, its Consumer Resource Center provides an informal complaint resolution service that notifies businesses of written complaints and facilitates communication to assist in resolving them.
The Better Business Bureau will also hear complaints against a business. If a complaint meets their complaint acceptance criteria, it will be sent to the business and the business will be asked to respond. This can help resolve thorny issues.
It is also possible to engage a lawyer to determine whether you may be able to recover funds and to assist with any efforts you decide to make.
Be a Careful and Informed Customer
What is most important, though, is being a careful consumer in the first place. While the Attorney General’s office and lawyers may help to recover funds and the BBB may help resolve miscommunication issues, in many cases there is little they can do. Evaluating and comparing several solar installers, reading reviews, checking the contract, refusing to get pressured into any decision and making sure you get exactly what you pay for can help you to avoid becoming the victim of a scam.
Solar Washington provides detailed information on our website to prepare you to be an informed customer. We recommend our Solar 101 page with its recording of the Introduction to Solar webinar to familiarize yourself with terms and concepts.