The salesman Erin Rodell spoke to at the door sounded very convincing.
He spun quite the yarn: His solar energy company was endorsed by Lincoln Electric System and was collaborating with Creighton University. Rodell said he even had a Creighton logo on his shirt.
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The salesman also spouted all kinds of claims about the benefits of installing solar panels. Rodell said he told her that once the panels were paid off, she’d never see another electric bill.
It all sounded so good that Rodell was hooked, and she signed a contract for a solar array.
“He had me very, very convinced,” the Lincoln woman said.
But it turns out it was all too good to be true.
A couple of days after signing the contract, Rodell said she wanted to learn more about the benefits of solar and started doing some research.
On the LES website, she learned that the utility has a list of authorized solar companies that it works with, almost all of them based locally. The company she signed a contract with, Everlight Solar, wasn’t on the list.
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Rodell has since canceled her contract, filed a police report because the person who came to her home did not have a peddler’s permit and contacted the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
“Just incredibly blatant lies” is how she described her experience with the salesman.
Everlight Solar, which is based in Wisconsin, did not comment specifically about Rodell’s allegations. But it did say in a statement that its representatives do not use high-pressure sales tactics “because those tactics do not work, sully our name and would result in high cancellation rates.”
“We want our customers to be happy, to be excited that they are going solar, and excited to work with our company,” the statement said.
Whether Rodell’s experience with Everlight is an outlier for the company, the problem of solar companies misrepresenting the benefits of residential solar programs appears to be widespread.
Omaha Public Power District has had similar issues with solar companies using aggressive and often misleading sales tactics.
“OPPD has experienced several customer complaints about business practices and false claims by solar companies,” said Kirk Estee, the utility’s customer alternative energy solutions manager.
He suggested that customers check out the list of solar and customer-owned generation trade allies on OPPD’s website before signing a contract.
In Minnesota, the state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit last month against four solar companies that allegedly scammed homeowners by using deceptive sales tactics.
Marc Shkolnick, manager of energy services at LES, said none of the companies named in the Minnesota complaint appear to be operating locally, but he has heard plenty of concerns about other companies using similar tactics in Lincoln.
He said one company, which he declined to name, has sold more than $1.5 million worth of solar panels to local customers.
“I think it’s a fairly significant problem,” Shkolnick said.
According to LES, deceptive tactics local customers have encountered include quoting inflated electric rates and unreasonable electric rate increase projections that overstate cost savings and payback of initial investments, pressuring customers to sign a purchase agreement, suggesting that they will no longer receive an electric bill and providing misleading information about incentives or signing bonuses.
People who choose to install a solar array qualify for a federal tax credit that as of this year is 26%. LES also provides a per-kilowatt credit of $375 for south-facing solar panels and $475 credit for west-facing ones, but only to customers who work with an approved solar installer.
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Kevin O’Neill didn’t find out until after he’d signed a contract with ADT Solar that the company wasn’t on the approved list.
O’Neill said the company had accurately represented the benefits in its sales pitch, but afterward, he couldn’t get ahold of anybody for weeks.
He said he eventually found out that the company was still trying to negotiate with LES to qualify for solar panel credits.
O’Neill said he eventually got LES to agree to give him the credits, but he ultimately wound up canceling his contract and going with another company, which will save him $10,000.
“It worked out better for us,” he said.
ADT Solar could not be reached for comment.
Shkolnick said he believes the situation is “a combination of willful deception and rampant ignorance.”
Most companies know what they are doing, he said, but in some cases, poorly trained sales reps may be giving out bad information.
“It certainly puts a black eye on the whole solar business, which is unfortunate, because there are some very reputable dealers in the space that operate in good faith,” Shkolnick said.
LES now only works with companies that go through training it offers and sign an agreement attesting that they will accurately represent the benefits of solar installations.
“It’s not 100% due diligence and vetting for the customer,” Shkolnick said, “but at least they’re going on record saying they will actually represent facts.”
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