Shady Solar Practices Lead to Calls for Protections

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s residential solar industry has grown dramatically in recent years, bringing with it some dishonest sales and service practices.

According to state data, the number of solar installation companies has increased from fewer than six in 2014 to 45 today. State incentives such as the Renewable Energy Fund and the Renewable Energy Growth Program have triggered more than 3,000 solar installations on homes across Rhode Island. But there have been growing pains.

At a May 2 House committee hearing, two local solar installers explained how they have been called to fix mistakes made my unscrupulous solar companies and to clarify to consumers why promised financial benefits made by other companies were less than expected.

“These people have laid out tens of thousands of dollars and they are not getting what they paid for,” said Doug Sabetti owner of Newport Solar, based in North Kingstown.

Sabetti said some shady solar companies are “upselling” systems to homeowners by convincing them to buy and install extra panels on roofs with poor sun exposure. Some companies have also failed to offer the appropriate incentives because the forms were too complicated to fill out, according to Sabetti. The sales people also didn’t mention possible income tax liabilities that may be triggered by the financial incentive programs.

Sabetti and Eric Beecher of Providence-based Sol Power didn’t name the accused competitors but described them as “big-box” national companies that don’t offer follow-up service after they install solar systems.

Beecher said he has been called by homeowners to remove and reinstall solar arrays because other solar companies didn’t replace roof shingles before the solar panels went up.

Some companies have offered inflated promises about the electricity output of their solar panels and exaggerated savings on electricity bills, then claim tree growth and/or cloudy weather hurt energy generation when those promises aren’t met, according to both Beecher and Sabetti.

“When that electricity production doesn't materialize (the customers) don't have much recourse,” Sabetti said.

Sabetti and Beecher endorsed a bill (H5991) that creates a mandatory disclosure form solar installers must sign to ensure that they deliver the promised benefits and assurances the roof will last as long as the solar panels. Failure to meet expectations could result in legal consequences.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, said there have been more than two dozen complaints made by homeowners who felt the solar company didn’t live up to its word.

“Some are good. Some are not-so-good,” Ruggiero said, as she described the influx of new residential solar installers in Rhode Island.

A four-page draft of the disclosure, modeled on a Massachusetts form, is being written by the Office of Energy Resources, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, National Grid, and the residential solar industry. The disclosure must be endorsed by the state Public Utilities Commission in time for the approval of the 2020 Renewable Energy Growth feed-in tariff program.

Ruggiero hopes the disclosure works, otherwise she’ll seek a new law next year that imposes tougher restrictions on installers.

“We have to do something because it’s not fair,” she said.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Cranston, is a co-sponsor of Ruggiero’s bill. In January, McNamara introduced a bill that creates a residential solar bill of rights. The legislation allows homeowners to rescind a solar sale or lease agreement prior to installation.

McNamara drafted the bill (H5133) after he received complaints about a Salt Lake City-based solar sales company that promised customers in his district unrealistic savings. Three senior citizens later discovered liens against their homes after they couldn’t afford to pay the monthly expense for their new solar systems, a cost they were promised would be covered by the savings on their electricity bills.

The dubious solar company, McNamara said, no longer answers its phone.

“When people invest in solar energy they should know that the representations they are getting are truthful,” McNamara said.

Both bills were held for further study and review. Senate companion bills haven’t been introduced.