In the Seas of Solar Installation:
Never Swim Alone!
Don't Get Scammed
Why do we have to have some segment of our society always looking for ways to profit from our misunderstanding? I am sure many of you, like me, get angry about scams that take place every day. I wish I could say living in a more rural area in Texas would provide some immunity to scams, but unfortunately, scammers don’t seem to follow any boundaries. There is always someone very willing to try to gain the confidence of those of us who may be unsuspecting of their schemes, and take advantage of our naiveté for financial gain.
We take continual strides at United to inform and warn our members about various scams that regularly circulate throughout our service area and that are directed in some way to our members. One of the more common scams we is when someone calls a United member threatening disconnection of electric service if they don’t immediately pay a past due balance. To be clear, United will never call a member and demand that a specific payment amount should be made immediately. Instead, United’s delinquent bill process requires that the member must initiate a call to a local office to make a payment--this helps protects our members by ensuring they are talking to a legitimate United member service representative, rather than an imposter.
Some gimmicks are a little less obvious. Maybe they don’t technically fall under the heading of scams, but are instead misrepresentations, or deals that don’t clearly represent all the details.
Through United’s ongoing member service efforts, we’ve met with a number of members who recently entered long-term agreements with solar sales companies and may not have received all the facts relating to those installations.
The sales pitches usually follow a similar pattern. Whether by telephone or door-to-door sales solicitation, the pitches invariably claim that residential solar panel installations will pay for a majority or all residential electric costs from then on. The solicitors usually insist monthly electric savings will be such that the small cost the solar company will bill consumers will be much less than what the consumer would have paid to the utility, and that those costs will be fixed and won’t go up like utility energy costs will in the future. Naïve consumers then sign documents that may or may not fully explain the long-term agreement for a monthly lease or purchase cost for a system (potentially at a pretty high interest rate).
The consumer is then stuck with the investment, and the company then moves on to their next target while the consumer waits in earnest for their first savings windfall. The bill comes and so very often so does the confusion, disappointment, frustration—and then anger. The first question is typically not to the salesman who sold the consumer the bill of goods, but to an employee at your electric cooperative. As United employees get involved, they discover more than a few misrepresentations, and in some cases, flat out fabrications that were made in reference to a system’s overall costs and production. Unfortunately, some of those United members are now locked into a long-term finance contract that really has no easy way out. On top of that, many times these installers do not follow United’s process for interconnection, so there is more cost that has to be dealt with in making the system meet safety standards. Members naturally feel swindled, and it doesn’t feel good.
There is no reason for any member to end up in such a situation. At your cooperative, we have the experience, the information and the resources all of our members need when considering making a solar decision. We can give any member guidance on how much energy a certain system will provide and also let our members know how much that would save each month. We can answer questions about different technologies and systems and explain exactly how it all works. We can provide members with the names of vendors operating throughout our territory that have earned reputations for being more reliable and supportive after a sale. While we don’t perform installations and system maintenance at this point in time, we are considering those member needs in the future. The bottom line is that we have the experience and information members need and should utilize to make a good decision. Please use this free resource before making a final decision to install a residential solar system.
And for members who have never wanted to go to those lengths, but who are still interested in the energy savings offered through solar distributed generation, we do have a much more economical and simple solar option for members—the United Community Solar rate. Solar energy generated by United’s 9.9 MW (AC) Community Solar plant in Bosque County provides an opportunity for members to subscribe to a solar option to help offset their regular monthly energy costs without having to install the solar panels on their home or enter into long-term agreements that can be a drag on homeowner resources for years. Subscribing is no more difficult than calling the nearest United office and asking to be included on the Community Solar rate. What happens after that is very similar to what could be expected when solar panels are installed on a residential rooftop—but likely better from a production standpoint.
When members sign up, they get the output of a 2 kW tracking solar system each month. This is roughly equivalent to having a 3.3 kW fixed solar system on a roof. With each monthly billing, members will see the energy output of their part of the United Community Solar project as their first energy used, and at a fixed price (guaranteed at that fixed rate until the year 2037). Whatever energy members use above the energy provided by the solar project will be provided by Brazos Electric Cooperative, our wholesale energy provider. It is that simple. We built a very large solar project at a very cost-competitive level so our members could have the option of solar without all of the hassle. That’s how we do things at your cooperative. We are always looking at innovative opportunities to provide our members exceptional service and value.
The old adage—“if it is too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true” —should be something that raises a red flag for every consumer. Let us help you weed out the good from the bad—we know energy, we know the business and we know it quite well. Use your cooperative to help you with these types of decisions. You will be glad you did in the end. Take care and God bless!
Interest continues to increase on a consumer level in harvesting energy from the sun. And certainly, United in the past couple of years has seen an influx in the number of members who install distributed generation systems (solar) behind their metering point.
While United is, and will continue to be, a staunch proponent of solar energy, many members have been misinformed when making the decision to install residential solar systems, and are often left disappointed when they discover many sales proposals fall far outside the truth.
Whether members are being told a system will pay for itself within a short amount of time, or that it will drop the monthly electricity bill to zero, United energy experts have uncovered several fallacies members have faced after their installations were already completed—when buyer’s remorse is difficult to remedy.
An important reminder, as well as a piece of sage advice, is this: members who are looking into the possibility of investing in residential solar do not have to wade into uncertain waters alone. United energy experts are here to help members understand the practical side of solar installation, no matter what stage of deliberation members may be.
Whether members are in the inquiry/research stage, or have progressed to interconnection, United is here to provide the knowledge and expertise that can assist members with any questions that come up along the way.
United strongly encourages members to call its trusted energy advisors before signing any contracts.
According to Consumer Reports, “contractors prey on homeowners who are unfamiliar with solar energy, which is most of us. Because solar installations can cost from $5,000-$60,000, the financial stakes of a mistake are high.”
The following is a list of the 11 most common mistakes and resulting misconceptions about the viability of residential solar installations:
- The cost of a solar installation varies, depending on the system size, specific product and site details. On average, residential customers in the D/FW area can expect between $2,600-$3,500 per kilowatt (kW) before incentives or rebates.
- If offered a package deal with other energy-efficiency upgrades, such as HVAC equipment, water heaters, insulation or radiant barrier, members may want to get bids for these items individually from other contractors. Package deals tend to drive up the overall cost for solar installations.
- Even after tax incentives or rebates, members can’t expect a payback for 15-20 years, even if the installation is paid for in cash. If the system is financed, then this extends the time required to see a return on the investment. It is common for solar contractors to quote a 3 percent escalator on electric rates. United’s rates historically have not seen this type of increase. In fact, rates in 2008 were higher than they are today.
- If the system is financed, the monthly payments made toward the solar loan most likely will be more than what members see in savings on their monthly electric bill. United energy advisors recently interviewed a member who paid a monthly payment of $260 toward the solar loan, but only realized $115-$120 in monthly savings from the solar system.
- United has a minimum bill of $25, so a member’s bill will never be zero. United does have a net metering policy and a buyback program. During any month when excess electricity is generated by solar, the member still is required to pay the $25, and UCS would apply a credit to the account for the excess energy that could be used for the next month’s billing cycle.
- The current 30 percent federal solar generation tax credit is not a guaranteed refund. The member must have a tax liability high enough to take advantage of it. United encourages members to consult with a tax professional to make sure they are eligible to receive the full 30 percent tax credit.
- Solar is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Many variables come into play. What works for one house might not elsewhere. If the contractor doesn’t ask for 12 months billing history, this is a red flag. The system needs to be designed for a member’s particular usage.
- Orientation and shading is a big deal that could greatly influence the overall production of the system. Any shading will negatively affect the system’s production. In the past year, United energy experts have inspected several systems installed where shading from trees or other objects was a problem. For optimal solar energy production, a solar system’s average duration of direct sunlight should be 6-8 hours per a day. Ideally, a fixed system should face due south to southwest, never northern orientations.
- Solar generation does not keep the lights on when the grid is down. It is not a backup system unless members have a battery backup, which requires more up-front costs.
- United recommends getting at least three bids from reputable contractors. Research all the ins and outs before signing any contract.
- If members ever feel pressured to sign a contract to “lock in” a deal that seems too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true. Never sign a contract under pressure.
Call Before You Install
Buyers, beware! Following a rash of complaints from members who recently installed solar, we uncover tales of false sales pitches, over-promises on production and incomplete work. United members can call their trusted energy advisors for FREE help when they choose to install a solar system.