Soapbox

Why California’s attorney general must stand up to solar companies

Technicians with SolarCity install solar modules on the roof of a Long Beach home.  Los Angeles Times/MCT
Technicians with SolarCity install solar modules on the roof of a Long Beach home. Los Angeles Times/MCT Los Angeles Times/MCT

In March, the attorney general of New Mexico filed a 17-count civil complaint against Vivint Solar that accused the company which sells and leases rooftop solar panels in California, New Mexico and other states – of fraud, racketeering and unfair business practices.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra would do well to follow New Mexico's lead.

My organization, Campaign for Accountability, has spent more than two years documenting how some rooftop solar companies exploit vulnerable consumers. In December, we released a an analysis of thousands of consumer complaints from across the country, including many filed in California. We found that some rooftop solar companies have misled consumers about the true costs of installation, have damaged homeowners' roofs and have left many unsuspecting customers with long, expensive leases and higher monthly utility bills, rather than the reduced rates they were promised.

Daniel Stevens.jpg
Daniel Stevens

Our research revealed that two of the worst offenders are Vivint and SolarCity, now owned by the car company Tesla. These two companies were the focus of more than half of all the rooftop solar complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission between 2012 and 2016. The Better Business Bureau, which has not accredited Vivint, also has received hundreds of complaints. The Consumer Federation of California, Public Citizen and the National Consumer Law Center have also voiced concerns.

Opinion

In California, where about 39 percent of Vivint's solar energy systems are installed, customers repeatedly complained that salespeople misrepresented the cost savings. Without state enforcement action, residents have sued Vivint directly, alleging deceptive and fraudulent business practices. At least one case, however, has been stymied by the company's forced arbitration requirement, another concern.

Regrettably, irresponsible and even criminal actions by some in the rooftop solar industry could deter consumers from moving toward solar energy to help slow climate change.

California has the good fortune to be one of America’s sunniest states. Consistent sunshine and favorable public policy are helping fuel the state's huge boom in rooftop solar. Not only can solar power be good for the environment, but it can also boost California's economy. In 2017, there were more than 86,000 jobs across the state tied to the solar industry, more than any other state.

Last year, California joined Florida, Nevada and New Mexico in requiring solar companies to disclose costs and other critical contract details to potential customers. This is an important step to limit some of the worst predatory practices, but our investigation suggests more needs to be done to protect consumers.

We wrote to Becerra, urging him to investigate rooftop solar companies that fail to treat their customers fairly and ethically. After all, there is no reason to believe Vivint's illegal conduct stopped at New Mexico's borders.

California's political leaders must root out bad actors in rooftop solar. If Californians begin to associate it with consumer fraud, it could jeopardize the entire industry, which would be bad for the environment and the economy.

Daniel Stevens is executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, a government and business watchdog based in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org.
  Comments