As solar has expanded exponentially over the past few years nationwide, so have complaints against industry leaders, including accusations of confusing contracts, deceptive marketing, aggressive sales tactics and even robocalls.
Solar companies operating in Vermont, however, seem to have avoided most of that.
The range of complaints have come across the desks of states’ attorneys general, the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.
In early 2016, when the United States hit the millionth solar panel installed — a milestone 40 years in the making — it was expected the two millionth panel would be installed within the next two years. In turn, the Trade Commission reported consumer complaints about solar companies increased seven-fold between 2012 and 2016.
In 2017, Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators identified “(p)roblems with solar energy sales and used car leasing (as) emerging issues to watch. Complaints about high-pressure sales tactics for solar systems, confusing contract terms, and faulty installation are beginning to be reported.”
Vermont has largely escaped this trend that some southwestern states and even neighbors such as Massachusetts are experiencing. The Vermont Attorney General's Office only has a handful of such complaints on file.
“I don't think we have experienced what has occurred in other states, largely because I think Vermonters have a strong local ethic. All the folks working in Vermont are in Vermont, I think that that also may be a slight difference between the things that have gone on in other states and here,” said Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of the renewables trade association Renewable Energy Vermont. “Our board of directors recently adopted a code of ethics for our membership,” she continued. "What’s important is that folks be very transparent and honest with their customers so we expect that all of our members are committed to meeting that standard.” Austin Davis, REV’s communications and operations associate, added: “Last year, the Vermont Clean Energy Industry report indicated that the majority of companies doing business in the Vermont clean energy space are below 25 employees. They're smaller, they're kind of in their communities, they know what's going on. So they're not going to do some shady business to people they then have to see at soccer practice. It's really more of a cottage industry. Obviously, we have some larger companies, but they're really smaller, cottage-industry-type businesses."
Solar giants like SolarCity, Vivint Solar and Sunrun have all made headlines for class-action lawsuits filed against them for deceptive marketing practices.
But their presence in the Vermont market is recent.
Warnings were issued by the Federal Trade Commission and the Vermont attorney general to utilities and solar companies in Vermont in 2015 and 2016 regarding misleading claims and marketing relating to renewable energy.
The warnings were related to the sale of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) — the commodified proof of generated renewable energy — from projects that were then either being sold as “going solar” or were falsely represented as renewable in Vermont.
When RECs are sold from a solar or wind project, the renewable energy “greenness” is then legally transferred to whoever purchased and retires the credit. Many of the RECs generated in Vermont have been sold out of state, which allows projects that might not otherwise have been financed to be built, but usually bolsters another state's or company's energy portfolios.
The FTC has issued “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims,” or Green Guides, since 1992. They are “designed to help marketers ensure that claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive,” the literature states.
The most recent update was issued in 2012, and included a section geared specifically toward renewable energy claims.
The language used by the FTC is clear: “(M)arketers who generate renewable energy — say, by using solar panels — but sell RECs for all the renewable energy they generate shouldn’t claim they ‘use’ renewable energy. Using the term ‘hosting’ would be deceptive in this circumstance.”
Critics of this practice in Vermont say they have felt, to some extent, that they’ve been shouting into the wind for years. To make matters worse, recent policies may be encouraging this detail-fudging, because the selling of RECs from a Vermont project could mean the difference between a positive or negative return on investment, and most people aren’t interested in throwing money away.
By example, with one foot in the solar world and another in the world of economic policy is Bill Bender of the Norwich-based Solaflect Energy, which develops, manufactures and installs tracker-mounted solar panels that follow the sun and maximize solar collection.
“It is really poor policy by the state of Vermont that should be changed,” Bender said of the current $.06/kilowatt hour penalization for projects keeping the RECs. “I don’t think there’s any excuse, and I’m saying that with my PhD. in economics hat on. It was my job to look at policy and think about what incentive structure is being set up.”
Under the previous state rules, RECs associated with net-metered systems installed could be sold by a developer or a utility — leaving some members of community solar arrays realizing they were no longer “green” or “renewable.”
Under new rules, however, RECs surrendered to the utility have to be retired in Vermont by the utility. So customers who do not want to take a penalty in order to keep their project’s RECs, which lowers the rate they are paid by their utility, can give them to their utility. While not legally going “green” themselves, customers can take comfort in the fact that they are helping Vermont to reach its renewable energy goals.
While residential customers may not care much about the distinction, businesses do.
“Where I think it’s really egregious is for a business in Vermont,” said Bender. “A lot of businesses do the same thing as residential customers, ‘I bought this so I can say I’m solar.’ But the legality of that claim is particularly important if you’re distributing something out of state.
“You want to say, ‘I have Vermont solar-powered beer,’ or maple syrup or pancake mix, etc.,” he said. "If you give away those RECs, that is an illegal claim, and there's no doubt about it. … the utility has the RECs and you don’t.”
Bender was one of many people to submit testimony to the Public Utility Commission during a public comment period that ended March 15 as part of its mandated biennial revision of rules. Nearly 400 public comments were logged on the PUC’s website.
A ruling with changes, if any, is expected to be issued May 1.