How to avoid solar scams that overpromise, underdeliver

How to avoid solar scams that overpromise, underdeliver

solar panels on roof

Oregon has a thriving solar industry. High customer interest, driven in part by financial incentives and increased tax credits, has helped sustain local solar installers and even attract new businesses.  

Unfortunately, the strong market has also attracted a growing number of solar sales companies focused on sales, rather than customer needs. These companies may operate in multiple states, expanding to places like Oregon where there is strong demand and incentive offers work to their advantage.  

Solar sales companies capitalize on customers’ partial knowledge of incentives, tax credits and solar electric generation to make it seem like they offer free or low-cost systems. They often run social media ads announcing limited-time free or low-cost solar programs in specific areas, claiming the government, local utilities or organizations like Energy Trust will pay the costs. The ads often say funding is limited, in an attempt to push customers to act quickly. 

In addition to using social media, solar sales companies frequently use door-to-door or telephone salespeople with little experience in the industry. They are trained in high-pressure sales techniques and given scripts that have proven successful in other markets or industries.  

Salespeople may attempt to build credibility by claiming to work for or with local utilities or organizations like Energy Trust. They use vague language about the costs and benefits of solar energy, focusing on incentives and tax credits they claim will make installation virtually free.  

Salespeople often overstate future utility rate increases, making an investment today appear more valuable over time. They often claim solar will eliminate customers’ electric bills. Their messaging is crafted to be partially true, but only under the right circumstances.  

Customers who sign agreements are handed off to licensed installers, while the sales company moves on to the next prospect. They may find installation costs are higher than expected and their systems don’t produce as much energy as promised.  

Customers may also find they still have an electric bill during cloudy months, despite salesperson’s promises. Worse yet, they often report challenges with tax credit eligibility, costly financing and difficulties in reaching the sales company for help down the road. 

Here’s what to watch out for 

Customers can take steps to protect themselves and avoid this situation. First, it’s important to watch for the following commonly used advertising and sales language: 

  • The government is requiring your electric utility to install a certain amount of solar capacity by a certain date. We’re working with them to help meet that requirement. 
  • Your electric utility identified your home as a good candidate for solar, so we were sent to confirm. 
  • Your system will produce all the energy you need. You’ll never pay another electric bill. 
  • Your system will be free. The government and Energy Trust of Oregon (and/or the electric utility) will pay the costs. 
  • You’ll have no out-of-pocket cost for installation. 
  • We’re offering a new program to Oregon customers who install solar. 
  • We’re working with (for) your electric company. 

Next, take these steps to protect yourself: 

  • Avoid entering agreements based solely on door-to-door or telephone sales. Solar energy is a significant home improvement and requires careful consideration. 
  • Get at least three bids since system designs and costs may vary widely. One great way to get an estimate for solar is to use Energy Trust’s online bid form. 
  • If a salesperson claims to be sent by, work with, or work for a utility, government entity or Energy Trust, call or email that organization to verify their claim. 
  • If a salesperson claims your system will eliminate all electric bills, verify that with other installers and your utility provider. 
  • Carefully review costs and financing before moving forward with a contract. Some solar sales organizations work with financing companies that charge high interest rates and fees. Ask your contractor for a complete breakout of financing costs and other fees they may roll into the final cost of the system. If the contractor is unable to disclose financing costs, ask them for the cash price without financing. Also consider multiple options if financing is needed. 
  • Watch for complicated incentive structures that may look like a good deal but are only discounts on an overpriced system. Having multiple bids can help. 
  • If tax credits are promised, check with a tax professional to verify your eligibility. You must have a large enough tax liability to take full advantage of tax credits. 
  • Find out if a subcontractor will install your system. It’s important to know who will complete the work and if they have quality or customer service issues. 
  • Check online reviews for the sales company and any subcontractors. A quick online search will reveal whether a company has a good or bad reputation. 
  • Verify the Construction Contractors Board (CCB) license number of each contractor who provides a bid. The CCB maintains information on complaints filed against contractors and any resulting fines or suspensions. 

Disputes can happen, even after taking the right steps. If you find yourself in a dispute with a sales company or installer, contact the Oregon Construction Contractors Board (CCB) at 503.934.2247, or Better Business Bureau. 

Solar energy is still a great investment for customers who want to offset a portion of their energy use with clean renewable power. However, it’s important to plan ahead and work with trusted resources to get the most out of your investment. Energy Trust can help.  

Energy Trust will match you with qualified solar trade ally contractors in your area based on your interests. They can provide customized bids with estimated incentives, tax credits, annual solar power generation and utility cost savings so you can see the net costs for the solar or solar + storage system. Energy Trust incentives are only available if you work with a qualified trade ally contractor. 

Learn more on Energy Trust’s website or call 1.877.777.4018.