Shoddy installations, predatory sales tactics, panels that do not work, savings that do not materialize, and poor customer service. Those are just some of the complaints consumers filed against the growing solar industry in Massachusetts.
25 Investigates reviewed hundreds of complaints registered with the Attorney General's office and found a common theme: customers say they are getting burned by their solar providers. More than 200 complaints were filed during a one-year period. 25 Investigates first came across the complaints while researching and working on a story about fires linked to rooftop solar installations.
"All of a sudden I get a text message from Tesla saying that the solar panels are no longer producing energy and that someone was going to come look at them," Chris Tripp, of Cotuit, told 25 Investigates' Ted Daniel.
Tripp had 33 solar panels installed on his roof after signing a 20-year lease with Solar City in July 2016, just one month before Tesla acquired Solar City. As part of the contract, Tripp says, the company agreed to maintain the panels as needed. So, when he got the text that his panels were malfunctioning, he called the company and was told his system would be taken off-line until it could be fixed. Tesla shut down his system this past September, he said.
"When they came out to fix the system, they told me it needed to be re-flashed and they weren't going to be able to come out to reflash it until October of 2020," said Tripp, who initially thought he misunderstood the service representative. "I put it on speakerphone so the person next to me could hear it because I was in total disbelief and thought I got it wrong."
Tripp says Tesla initially told him his system only needed a simple reboot. But, while we were at his home for an interview, he called customer service and a representative made the problem sound more serious. 25 Investigates was present for the call and heard when the female representative told Tripp all the panels would need to be removed so that "the entire connector system underneath" could be "reworked."
"I've never had a conversation like that with Tesla" since they said it could more than a year to fix the panels, added Tripp. "She had some very definitive answers this time."
As 25 Investigates reported on November 18, connectors have been linked to rooftop solar panel fires in Massachusetts and across the country.
Tripp contacted the State Attorney General's Office when Tesla continued billing him as if his system was still producing power.
"I fully expected my electric bill to go up knowing that I couldn't do anything about the panels. But then a month goes by and I get an estimated bill from Tesla, which means they are estimating the power that should be coming out of the system because it's shut down."
His complaint is among hundreds the state AG's Office receives each year about the solar industry.
Some of the complaints we reviewed include:
A Haverhill man complained that after installing a $41,000 system he has been "losing money every month and been getting nothing but the runaround."
A Woburn family wrote: "please assist us with getting these panels off our home we are still paying monthly fees for something that isn't working along with our electric bill."
The owner of a two-family home in South Dartmouth wrote: "they did all the electrical all wrong and tied into the wrong meter."
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25 Investigates contacted the Washington DC-based consumer watchdog group Campaign for Accountability, which conducted a yearlong nationwide study of the rooftop solar industry. Their report found "the abuse by rooftop solar companies is real and extensive."
"A big problem here is the companies make a lot of money once they get the panels installed and they don't have the incentives to go out and deal with any of the issues stemming from the problems," said Daniel Stevens, executive director of Campaign for Accountability. "My biggest advice is to be very careful with what you are agreeing to buy."
With over 85,000 homes generating energy from the sun, Massachusetts is the fifth most solar-friendly state in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Massachusetts offers generous rebates, tax credits and tax exemptions for solar energy and many companies have concentrated their sales efforts here.
"There are some solar installers who are probably not worth doing business with, but they are easy to weed out," said Larry Chretien, executive director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group for solar customers that connects people to reputable providers.
"If you do your homework and make competition work for you, you should be able to save a couple hundred bucks a year or more," added Chretien. "You have to think of it over the life of the system that it could save you a few thousand dollars over a few years."
For consumers looking to get in on solar, both Stevens and Chretien recommend people buy their panels outright instead of leasing them if they can afford it. They say leases typically require a 20-year commitment and there can be a lot of fine print. Also, they say to make sure you fully understand the contract before signing. Hiring an attorney to review the contract is a good idea. Contact the state Attorney General's office if you feel you have been taken advantage of.
Cox Media Group