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Leon Kaye headshot

NGO Urges California to Investigate the Solar Industry

By Leon Kaye

She’s leaving office in six weeks to take her seat in the U.S. Senate. But California Attorney General Kamala Harris has been asked to launch an investigation into the state’s solar power industry.

Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) urged Harris to launch an investigation into residential solar installation companies after mounting complaints.

CfA’s request comes a few months after the watchdog group Public Citizen complained that many solar system leases, including those written by SolarCity, often include forced arbitration clauses. Such stipulations make it impossible for consumers to take solar power providers to court in the event any contracts or laws are violated.

In addition to dodgy legalese, many solar companies indulge in tactics that in the very least are embarrassing and at most predatory, insists CfA.

The group said the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) received at least 125 consumer complaints from solar customers since 2012. The grievances, which include accusations against at least 30 different solar companies, were all over the map: poorly finished installations, promises of low utility rates that actually morphed into huge monthly price increases, and even harassing phone calls to consumers on the federal government’s “do not call” registry.

A grand total of 125 complaints may not sound like much in a state home to 40 million residents, but there is a catch: The CPUC does not have jurisdiction over solar power companies. If you have a complaint about your limo ride, your utility or a moving company, that agency must be on your radar. But according to CfA, complaints about residential solar installations must be channeled to the state attorney general's office.

"The complaints we reviewed are likely to be just a small subset of the actual number of complaints," a CfA spokesperson told TriplePundit in an email. "The Attorney General's Office -- which does have jurisdiction -- may have received many more. We don't know, though, because their complaints are confidential."

The largest offenders turned out to be SolarCity and Vivint Solar, according to the group. As of press time, neither company responded to TriplePundit's requests for comment.

The bottom line, claims CfA, is that too many solar installers have followed the path of other industries that became notorious for ripping off consumers. Tales of hyper-aggressive sales tactics, misrepresentations of the services provided, and preying on low-income and elderly consumers all risk leaving a black eye on an industry that has long promised to free citizens from dependence on fossil fuels while lowering their monthly utility bills. Sales representatives are also accused of telling customers they were affiliated with local utilities, which may have added an air of legitimacy to these sales calls but also violates state law.

In the end, many of these companies appear to have run afoul of California’s Unfair Competition Law, which aims to protect residents from fraud and other illegal business practices. CfA concluded that some shady characters within California’s solar power industry benefit from lax enforcement, and in turn asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate and decide whether these firms should be held accountable in court.

This is not an energy company-funded campaign attacking the solar industry. For CfA, a cleanup of California’s solar power industry is just another campaign that seeks to hold influential companies responsible for their conduct. In recent years, the nonprofit investigated mining and fossil fuel companies the organization says have been lobbying to rollback environmental regulations. And most recently, CfA filed a Freedom of Information Act request to review FBI files on Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump who is rumored to be in the running for a leading role in the president-elect’s administration.

Image credit: Matt Montagne/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye