Solar Consumer Protection has become an important issue as the sector develops. With the growth of the number of solar installers in Rhode Island, consumers need to invest time in educating themselves on the incentives, financial analyses, solar components, and installer reputation to assure that they are getting the best value out of their investment.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the authority on consumer protection. This year, the FTC held a workshop titled “Something New Under the Sun: Competition & Consumer Protection Issues in Solar Energy”. At this event, speaker Hampton Newsome of the FTC stated the following:
“In the world of rooftop solar sales, … marketers should not misrepresent any aspect of their product, whether they’re talking about material terms of a contract, including the payments, the warranties, the cost terms of the lease, the energy savings of the product, or the environmental benefits”
Consumer protection starts with consumer education; by gaining knowledge on what a reasonable solar proposal should look like, individuals can begin to see when proposal details might be exaggerated, misrepresented, or inaccurate.
The first step homeowners should take towards protecting themselves can be done through simple online research. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has resources available for homeowners that outline the ways to become more familiar with solar. As SEIA outlines in their “Residential Guide to Solar Power” homeowners should be sure to understand the basics of solar PV, the factors that influence solar production, local incentive options, purchase options, and product warranties. With this information in mind, understanding a solar quote will not only become much easier for a homeowner, but it may also help them identify if they are being misled by a solar company.
In SEIA’s discussion of consumer protection they mention that it is also important for homeowners to research the companies that they are receiving solar quotes from. This research should include asking for references and for the company’s licenses. Doing this type of research is easy in Rhode Island. All solar installers are required to hold a Renewable Energy Profession Certificate. Certified Renewable Energy Professionals in Rhode Island are listed on the State Office of Energy Resources Website.
After gaining basic knowledge online, homeowners should consult with solar installers to gather more details on incentives, financial analyses, solar components, and installer reputation.
Newport Solar has always taken pride in educating homeowners about the benefits of solar, and how solar would work at their own residence. Consumers should be aware of the following details that can sometimes be misrepresented in Rhode Island:
- Incentives: There are 2 incentive options available in RI. Both options can be attractive to homeowners, depending on the site characteristics and their personal preferences. In Net Metering, the upfront grant is based on systems size and helps to reduce system upfront cost. It is not an award given to the installing company in addition to the system cost. The second incentive path, the Renewable Energy Growth program, has earned a nationwide reputation as one of the best residential solar incentive options available. The bottom line is that the financials of both of these options should be presented in any solar quote so that homeowners can decide which option is most attractive to them. To ensure consumer protection, solar companies should only guide homeowners, not decide for them.
- Financial Analysis: While some homeowners may choose to “go solar” due to its environmental benefits, it is the financial payback that attracts most. There are many factors that go into developing the financial analysis portion of a solar quote, some of which are based upon assumptions. For example, a solar quote will assume a specified panel degradation rate, kWh production capability, electricity rate increase, and system life. Companies should be able to identify what assumptions are used in their solar quotes, and also be open to altering their models based upon homeowner or site specific insight.
- System Components: At face value, some solar quotes may seem more appealing than others simply due to a lower system cost. However, a lower system cost may be indicative of lower quality system components. Homeowners should be careful to review what components are specified in the solar quotes that they receive, and how those components rank against others.
- Installer Reputation: There are many different installers working in the state with varying business models; offering different products and services, financing options, and warranties. In addition, companies have different levels of customer service and capability for meeting their customer’s needs. To assure quality, homeowners should also be sure to ask a solar company if they subcontract any of their installation work.
Consumer protection is a newer concern in the solar industry; with a little preparation on the front end, people considering solar can assure that they are getting what they pay for in a residential solar installation in Rhode Island.