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GUEST COMMENTARY: Protect consumers in rooftop solar matters

GUEST COMMENTARY: Protect consumers in rooftop solar matters

In Indianapolis, the Legislature is weighing eliminating a policy known as “net metering,” which allows Indiana homeowners with rooftop solar panels to sell the electricity they produce back to the electric company. This law exists to help defray the price of the panels, which are substantial, often costing between $15,000 and $20,000.

This fight over “net metering” is similar to battles in state capitals around the nation, where the utilities and the solar companies are each spending millions of dollars on lobbying. These tactics may be unseemly, but they are legal and generally protected by the First Amendment.

However, Hoosiers should understand a few things about the issue of rooftop solar. First, not all companies that sell rooftop solar panels treat their customers fairly. In fact, my organization, Campaign for Accountability, has been investigating the practices of rooftop solar companies across the country and has found that many consumers have been misled into purchasing the costly panels.

We filed open records requests with a number of state attorneys general as well as the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and examined thousands of complaints against rooftop solar companies. We are working to obtain similar information from Indiana regulators.

Our review found companies often deceived consumers about the true costs of installing solar panels, lured them in with low price quotes that later proved to be false, required them to sign confusing contracts and promised energy savings that failed to materialize. These tactics might violate prohibitions against deceptive marketing. We’ve asked federal and state authorities to investigate.

Campaign for Accountability is not alone in expressing concern. Last year, the watchdog group Public Citizen criticized the arbitration clauses in rooftop solar contracts, noting that solar leasing arrangements pose “significant financial risks for families.” Similarly, the National Consumer Law Center urged the CFPB to take action to protect low-income consumers citing, among other things, “extensive complaints of false claims as to the savings with such panels and the terms of the leases.”

While some of the tactics used by the utility industry are indeed troubling, some alleged environmental advocates extolling solar energy and criticizing power companies are actually an extension of the rooftop solar industry.

One such organization, known as the Energy and Policy Institute, claims to be a think tank and watchdog organization working to reveal the hidden influence of fossil fuel and utility companies, but is really just a dark money group. EPI does not seem to have nonprofit status. It is not registered with any relevant secretary of state, and no one admits to funding it. In fact, it seems EPI is simply a creation of a public relations firm.

A healthy dose of skepticism is required when weighing the competing arguments for and against “net metering.” Ultimately, however, whatever happens in Indiana, policy makers and state law enforcement agencies should work to protect consumers.

Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. The opinions are the writer's.


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