There’s an increase in Pacific Northwest homes powered by the sun, but do your homework so you don’t get burned

Rooftop solar power installations are on the rise in Oregon and Washington State. At the same time, you may have noticed an increase in advertisements offering rooftop solar panels, or even received an in-person solicitation. Some of the sales pitches contain dubious or potentially misleading claims. And now consumer watchdogs are urging landlords to do their homework before signing a contract.

In hindsight, Pasco, Washington, retiree Bob Layman wished he and his wife had done more research on the solar installer they chose to install panels on their roof. Part of their system was miswired. This meant the Laymans could not get an accurate meter reading to collect the state’s solar generation incentive payments.

Residential solar electric installations are booming in the Pacific Northwest, along with their potentially misleading marketing.

Kristian Buus/Wikimedia Commons

“It’s working fine other than the meter was hooked up incorrectly and didn’t give us a payout,” Layman said in an interview.

It took three years, countless phone calls and several house calls before the wiring issue was resolved and the couple received the incentive payment.

“They misled me in their communication and tried to get me to pay less than half of what they actually owed me,” Layman said of the saga with the seller. “They just stopped talking to me.”

The installation company did not respond to a request for its side of the story.

Going green has a lot of appeal, but if it costs you more greenbacks or stress than expected, you might feel green around the gills.

In Oregon, complaints filed with the Oregon Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Division regarding residential solar power doubled between 2019 and 2021, although starting from a low base.

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

A spokesperson for the Washington state attorney general said the agency’s consumer protection division has tracked nearly 100 complaints since 2019 about the industry, including misleading advertising and sales. at high pressure. The tally still pales next to major complaint drivers such as online shopping and telecommunications services, so there was no indication that action similar to Idaho’s was imminent.

The onslaught of solar energy marketing on social media and online is reflected in advertisements popping up in places as varied as early bonsai pruning videos or 1980s musical hits.

A Nevada-based digital marketing firm has produced a widely circulated ad that begins with this dubious claim: “If you own a home in Washington, 2022 is your LAST chance to go solar.”

When staff at long-established Western Solar in Bellingham saw this ad and others like it, they were prompted to write a blog post titled “How to Protect Yourself From Solar Scams and High Pressure Sales”.

The reality is that state and most local utility solar programs are not expected to change between this year and next year. A federal tax credit will decrease only slightly next year.

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

Another novelty that surfaced this spring in online advertisements is that you could “have solar installed on your home for free.” Reputable solar installers have said that just like there is no free lunch, there are also no free solar panels.

“In the long term, they can pay for themselves, for sure. In the short term, they’re not free,” said Todd Currier, director of the energy program at Washington State University. . “What does the long term mean? It can take ten, twelve, fifteen years before a system becomes self-financing.

Currier says he’s sadly heard of seniors being sold systems with long-term financing plans that are totally unsuitable for a senior.

The president of the Washington Solar Energy Industries Association said members of the trade group agreed there was a problem.

“At the end of the day, in Washington state, it’s buyer beware,” said Markus Virta, who is also sales manager for Western Solar in Bellingham.

Virta said business groups like his don’t have the power to control non-member bad actors, which include lead compilers and other outside businesses solely focused on distance marketing. Virta says honest industry players are talking with utility companies and state agencies about how to strengthen consumer protections.

“We’re doing our best to think about what we can do, what leverage mechanisms we can use to try to quell these misleading and frankly false claims that are being made,” Virta said in an interview Thursday.

Virta’s advice to people wanting to go solar is to get multiple offers. He reiterated never to 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 manager.

Currier said he would like potential contractors to show up and do in-person site assessments before submitting bids to install a solar system.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice recommended starting with a website supported by the US Department of Energy called EnergySage.com.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a record number of new rooftop solar installations. According to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, annual solar installations in Oregon grew more than 50% last year. Washington also saw double-digit percentage growth with Idaho trailing but still growing rapidly.

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

Virta identified several forces driving the acceleration of installations. He said the coronavirus pandemic had played a big role in causing people to spend more on home projects and renovations, which sometimes meant buying a solar power system.

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