Surge in Homes Powered by the Sun, But Do Your Homework So You Don't Get Burned

Surge in Homes Powered by the Sun, But Do Your Homework So You Don't Get Burned

June 17, 2022 - KUOW by Tom Banse

https://kuow.org/stories/surge-in-homes-powered-by-the-sun-but-do-your-homework-so-you-don-t-get-burned

Solar power installations on home rooftops are surging in Oregon and Washington state. Alongside, you may have noticed an uptick in ads pitching rooftop solar, or even gotten an in-person solicitation. Some of the sales pitches contain dubious or potentially misleading claims. And now, consumer watchdogs are urging homeowners to do their homework before signing any contract.

In hindsight, Pasco, Washington, retiree Bob Layman wishes he and his wife had done more research about the solar installer they selected to put panels on their roof. Part of their system was improperly wired. That meant the Layman's could not get an accurate meter readout to collect state solar production incentive payments.

"It runs smoothly other than the fact that the meter was hooked up wrong and didn't give us a payout," Layman said in an interview.

It took three years, innumerable phone calls and multiple house calls before the wiring snafu was fixed and the couple collected the back incentive payout.

"They were misleading in communication with me and trying to get me to settle for less than half of what they actually owed me,” Layman said of the saga with the vendor. “They just quit talking to me."

The installer company did not reply to a request for their side of the story.

Going green has much appeal, but if it costs you more greenbacks or stress than you expected, you could be left feeling green around the gills.

In Oregon, complaints to the consumer protection division in the Oregon Department of Justice related to residential solar doubled between 2019 and 2021, albeit starting from a low level.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Attorney General issued a consumer alert warning about misleading sales tactics by some solar companies.

A spokesperson for the Washington State Attorney General said that agency’s consumer protection division tallied nearly a hundred complaints since 2019 about this sector, including about deceptive advertising and high pressure sales. The tally still pales beside top generators of complaints such as e-commerce shopping and telecom services, so there was no indication action similar to Idaho was imminent.

The onslaught of solar energy marketing in social media and online is resulting in ads showing up in such wide ranging places such as at the beginning of bonsai pruning videos or 1980’s music hits.

A Nevada-based digital marketing firm produced one widely-seen ad that begins with this dubious claim, "If you're a Washington homeowner, 2022 is your LAST chance to go solar."

When the staff at long-established Western Solar in Bellingham saw that ad and others like it, they were moved to write a blog post titled, “How to protect yourself from solar scams & high-pressure sales.”

The reality is that the state's and most local utility solar programs aren't scheduled to change between this year and next. A federal tax credit decreases only slightly next year.

“Installations completed in 2022 are eligible for a 26% tax credit, with a 22% credit for systems installed in 2023,” Trish Merriman of Western Solar wrote. “Unless Congress renews it, the (federal) tax credit expires for residential installs starting in 2024.”

Another come-on that surfaced this spring in online ads is that you could "get solar installed on your home at no cost." Reputable solar installers said just like there's no such thing as a free lunch, there's no such thing as free solar panels either.

"Over the long run, they can pay for themselves, for sure. Over the short run, they are not free,” said Todd Currier, director of the Washington State University Energy Program. “What does the long run mean? It can be ten, twelve, fifteen years before a system pays for itself."

Currier said he has unfortunately heard about seniors being sold systems with long-term financing plans totally unsuitable for an old person.

The president of the Washington Solar Energy Industries Association said the trade group's members agree there is a problem.

"Ultimately in Washington state, it's buyer beware," said Markus Virta, who is also director of sales for Western Solar in Bellingham.

Virta said trade groups like his don't have the power to police non-member bad actors, which include sales lead compilers and other out-of-state outfits solely focused on remote marketing. Virta says the honest players in the business are talking with utility companies and state agencies about how to step up consumer protection.

"We’re doing our best to brainstorm what we can do, what leverage mechanisms we can take to try to snuff out these misleading and frankly false claims that are being made," Virta said in an interview Thursday.

Virta's advice for people wanting to go solar is to get multiple bids. He reiterated to never sign the contract on the table during your first sales meeting with a contractor. And make sure you end up dealing with a system designer, not just the sales or marketing person.

Currier said he would want potential contractors to come out and do site assessments in person before submitting their bids to install a solar system.

A spokesperson at Oregon's Department of Justice recommended starting at a U.S. Department of Energy-backed website named EnergySage.com.

This all is happening in the context of record numbers of new rooftop solar installations. According to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, annual solar installations in Oregon rose by more than 50% last year. Washington also experienced double-digit percentage growth with Idaho trailing a little behind, but still growing briskly.

Puget Sound Energy alone reported to the WSU Energy Program that it connected 2,000 new residential solar arrays in 2021 and said it was on track for 3,000 new interconnections this year.

Virta identified multiple forces behind the acceleration of installations. He said the coronavirus pandemic played a big role by leading people to spend more on home projects and renovations, which sometimes meant acquiring a solar energy system. 

6 Questions to Ask as You Consider Home Solar

6 Questions to Ask as You Consider Home Solar

Considering residential solar installation for your home? Ask these questions to help avoid common pitfalls.

Solar power can be an attractive prospect for homeowners and shoppers. Home solar technology offers resilience, electricity bill savings and more energy independence. For the environmentally conscious, it provides an eco-friendly alternative to existing electricity sources. What’s more, Zillow research indicates listings that highlight eco-friendly features sell up to 10 days faster, and homes with solar panels can sell for 1.4% more.

But shopping or even researching home solar installation services can often feel daunting. Aggressive, misleading advertising and predatory practices abound, some of which even bear official-sounding names and exploit government programs meant to incentivize green home improvements.

Zillow research indicates listings that highlight eco-friendly features sell up to 10 days faster, and homes with solar panels can sell for 1.4% more.

Thankfully, as the market matures, reputable installers are rising to the top. This primer will discuss tips on how to identify them, whether or not your situation may be suitable for solar, how to look into incentives, ways to store the extra electricity your system creates, and cost estimates. 

1. Is my home suitable for home solar?

While exceptions to this rule exist (more on that later), you’ll enjoy the most benefit from home solar if you’re a homeowner who lives in a single-family home and has access to roof space or land that’s not shaded from trees or other obstructions.

There are other considerations. South-facing roof surfaces or ground arrays will generate energy most efficiently, but you can utilize solar energy regardless of the direction your roof surfaces face. Your climate matters — the more sunny days your roof sees, the more electricity you can generate — but solar can be viable in even the most overcast skies of the United States.

Takeaway: Homeowners of single-family homes that have unshaded roof space or land are in the best position to benefit from a professional solar system installation, but other options exist.

Image of 6 home solar considerations

Additional considerations

What’s the condition of your roof?

If you’re looking at solar for an existing home, consider when your roof might need to be replaced. If your roof is nearing the end of its life, talk to an installer, says Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage, which helps consumers compare solar installers. You may want to get your roof replaced first, or get the work done in conjunction with your solar installation.

Some solar installers now offer roof replacement with installation services, or they partner with roofing companies. At the very least, solar installers should be able to provide referrals for reputable roofers. Since solar panels generally last 25-30 years, you’ll want to time both jobs accordingly.

If you’re building, discuss a solar integration with your builder sooner than later.

Does your homeowners association have any rules regarding solar?

While some HOAs may restrict or outright prohibit solar system installation, many states are adopting so-called “solar access” laws, which may override HOA rules. The DSIRE database, which offers an interactive, state-by-state breakdown of renewable energy policies and incentives, can help you research your situation. Elsewhere, the Solar Energy Industries Association offers a guide to overcoming HOA objections.

What about solar shingles?

Solar shingles or tiles — which look much closer to traditional roofing materials, but still produce energy — may be another workaround if your HOA has restrictions. Popularized by Tesla’s Solar Roof, this technology is still emerging, so it’s more difficult to calculate a cost-benefit analysis or return on investment. 

“It’s definitely a more nascent and very minor part of the residential solar installation space today,” says Garrett Nilsen, acting director for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office. Regarding how long these newer systems last and perform over time, “the best information being provided is by the developers of those products themselves. There’s still more time needed to really understand their performance over the long run.”

DIY or professional installation?

Your overall energy bill may influence whether you decide to work with a professional installer or opt for a DIY installation. Households with smaller monthly electricity bills will have a harder time finding willing installers, because the fixed costs of an installation can run high, says Vikram Aggarwal. “Anything below $50 a month, around the country, and it becomes very difficult to get solar contractors to be interested.”

What if home solar installation isn’t viable for me?

Lastly, if you or a professional installer determine that your situation isn’t suitable for solar or you don’t own your home, you may still be able to benefit from solar through a community solar program

More resources: Existing homeowners can get started by searching their address with Google’s Project Sunroof. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy maintains the Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar.

2. How do I find a reputable installer?

The experts we talked to repeatedly pointed to installers as the vanguards of a quality system installation and results. It pays, they say, to find one with a quality reputation.

A reputable installer should be able to answer all of your questions and concerns, whether they’re about incentives, storage and batteries, your potential return on investment, or financing. Do the due diligence: Read the fine print and get everything in writing. With solar energy system installation, the old saying holds: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“The number one thing is to look at installers’ experience,” says EnergySage’s Aggarwal. “Number two is the quality of their team. What kind of training do they have? Do they have in-house installation teams, or do they outsource it to someone else? Do they carry the industry-leading certification from an organization called NABCEP? What kind of insurance do they have? Do they have all their licenses up to date?”

Then, just like you would any other business, check their online reviews. “Check the reviews on Yelp or any other trusted, third-party platform,” says Aggarwal.

Other things to assess, says Aggarwal, are the warranties that installers offer and the quality of equipment they install. “Is it top of the line, middle of the line, or economy class? And are they a recommended dealer for the major manufacturers?”

“The number one thing is to look at installers’ experience.” – Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage

Lastly — and this is a big one — can your installer provide references? At the least, their website should show testimonials from real people. But better yet, they should be able to connect you to happy customers who’ll vouch for them.

Takeaway: Evaluate an installer before you agree to work with them. Get at least three quotes to compare. Here’s a short list of factors to consider:

  • Team training (team should be in-house, not outsourced)
  • Team experience
  • Certifications
  • Insurance
  • Licenses
  • Third-party reviews
  • References

3. What home solar incentives are available in my area?

Incentives generally exist at four levels: Federal, state, local, and utility. What’s offered largely depends on where you live.

“The big takeaway is to get information, information, information,” says Nilsen, again highlighting the importance of working with knowledgeable installers. “Reach out to multiple installers, ask what incentives are available in your area.”

Here, Nilsen again suggests the DSIRE interactive, state-by-state breakdown of renewable energy policies and incentives.

The Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC)

The ITC is a federal policy that allows you to deduct installation costs from your federal taxes. It provides a 26% tax credit for systems installed in 2020-2022 and 22% for systems installed in 2023. It expires starting in 2024, unless Congress renews it.

The ITC is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of federal income tax you might otherwise owe. Check out the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s comprehensive breakdown for frequently asked questions and more details.

Takeaway: Depending on your location, incentives may exist at the federal, state, local, and utility level. The ITC is the big one, but its future is not guaranteed.

4. Is net metering available in my area?

Net metering, the billing mechanism that essentially gives you credit for the excess electricity your home solar system generates, isn’t available everywhere. Check with your utility company before making any binding decisions.

The complicated dynamic tends to fuel a common misunderstanding — that your system can actually make you money. This is very rarely true, and companies that advertise or suggest it should be viewed with serious scrutiny.

If your area does offer net metering, it can provide you the benefit of power resilience. Since your system isn’t a constant source of electricity — it doesn’t generate at night, and it generates less during cloudy days, for example — you’ll end up using those credits when your system is off its peak hours, days, or months.

Takeaway: Where it’s available, net metering can be a way to share excess energy to the grid your home is connected to. This sharing is credited to your account, and you can use that credit when your home needs it.

5. Do I need batteries or storage?

Batteries and local storage are another way to store energy produced by solar panels. For now, solar batteries are the most common on-site way to store the unused electricity your system creates. You may hear people refer to this as electrochemical storage.

There are several benefits to storing solar energy, the most obvious being that it’s there in the case of a power outage or when the sun isn’t shining. A few more technical factors — like whether or not one-to-one net metering is available to you, or if you’re subject to complex utility rates — are also worth considering.

Seasonal storage, a term for methods that store energy for longer periods of time, is a prospect with vast potential, but it’s not yet widely available to consumers. Ask your prospective installers about what’s right for your situation. Again, they should be well versed in the pros and cons; just remember that they may have an interest in selling you more system than you actually need.

Takeaway: Solar storage may make sense if you experience frequent power outages, although other more complex factors also apply. 

6. Is home solar worth it?

Ultimately, every homeowner will need to answer this question for themselves. The number of variables makes every assessment unique. Calculators like Project Sunroof or EnergySage’s Solar Calculator can give you a starting point. Nuanced estimates from reputable installers will give you a clearer picture.

In 2020, homeowners typically spent between $10,000 and $20,000 to install a solar panel system, according to EnergySage. Savings over the course of the system’s life may compensate for those costs. 

If you decide to move forward, there are several ways to pay for the equipment. Buying your system upfront will generally give you a lower total cost than using a solar loan, lease, or power purchase agreement. If you do take a loan, monthly loan payments are often smaller than a typical energy bill.

 

How Solar Shields You From Rising Utility Costs

How Solar Shields You From Rising Utility Costs

Energy Prices Increasing Every Year Energy price hikes can happen at any time, and virtually without notice. Throughout the past decade, energy prices have risen at an average rate of 4% each year. By switching to solar, you have the opportunity to completely eliminate or significantly reduce your electricity bill.