How to avoid ‘bad actors’ in booming solar industry

People stand outside a home with large panels on the roof.
Frank and Angela Haynes had several reasons for installing a solar system on their Albany, Minn. property one of which was to encourage a conversation with their neighbors about renewable energy.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Frank and Angela Haynes wanted to put solar panels on their century-old home in Albany, about 20 miles west of St. Cloud.

Frank Haynes worked for an electric utility years ago, when most electricity was produced by burning coal. He knew that solar is becoming an affordable energy alternative to reduce fossil fuel use, which produces greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.

"There really aren't many ways that individuals can do that, so we felt that it was something that we could do,” he said. “Everybody's got to do a little something."

In hindsight, Haynes said he probably should have been a little more cautious when choosing a solar company. 

Haynes said he clicked on an online advertisement about solar energy and contacted Brio, a Utah-based solar sales company. A few months later, he signed a contract for a rooftop solar energy system.

It was a frustrating experience, he said, marked by numerous delays and frequent staff turnover that made it difficult to get answers.

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A man stands outside a house with electric equipment.
Frank Haynes inspects some of the additional equipment that was installed in order to have his solar panels tied into his Albany home’s existing electrical system.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"From August, we didn't have a working system until nine months later,” Haynes said. “And there were huge gaps in there, like months and weeks where we didn't hear from them at all."

Last month, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced he is suing four Utah-based solar companies: Brio Energy, Bello Solar Energy, Avolta Power and Sunny Solar Utah. The lawsuit also names three company executives.

Ellison said the companies led customers to believe they were affiliated with their local utility. He said they used high-pressure sales tactics to convince customers to sign binding contracts, and threatened legal action if the homeowners tried to cancel.

Assistant attorney general Kirsi Poupore said the companies’ executives instructed sales staff to exaggerate the financial benefits of solar panels, especially to elderly homeowners. 

Brio, which has since changed its name to Avolta, didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.

Lawsuits welcomed

Some advocates of solar energy say they welcome the lawsuits against unethical companies that put the industry’s reputation at risk.

“Anything that we can do to eliminate bad actors and mitigate harms to consumers is the best thing to do for the long-term success of our industry,” said Logan O'Grady, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group with 145 members in the solar and energy storage industries.

There are plenty of reputable companies doing business in Minnesota, said Bobby King, state director of Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit solar purchasing cooperative. He recommends getting multiple bids and references, and shopping around for financing before choosing an installer.

"I also wouldn't sign anything until someone's visited your home, looked it over, and then come back to you with a proposal based on that visit,” King said.

All-Energy Solar, a St. Paul-based solar designer and builder, has been asked to fix some of the faulty systems. CEO Michael Allen said experienced solar companies can provide a precise estimate of how much electricity a system will generate at a given location using weather data.

"We can tell you exactly how much sun is going to shine in St. Paul, within reason, year over year over year,” he said.

Solar is an investment a homeowner will live with for the next 20 to 30 years, Allen said, so it's important to pick a company that will be around for the long term.

"What we're finding that's really sad, as we're fixing a lot of these problems and customers' issues, is that they don't even know who they actually ultimately contracted with,” he said.

Another obstacle many home and business owners have encountered is a delay in getting small solar projects connected to the electrical grid.

Earlier this year, Minnesota’s utility regulators told Xcel Energy to work to clear the backlog of projects that have resulted in delays.

There has been some improvement in the wait times since the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission made some adjustments to the approval and connection process, O’Grady said.

Happy with his choice

People stand outside a home with large panels on the roof.
Frank Haynes had several reasons for installing a solar system on his Albany, Minn. property one of which was to encourage a conversation with his neighbors about renewable energy.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Despite the setbacks, Haynes said he's still glad he chose solar energy. The system on the roof of his garage is now producing between 40 to 60 percent of his electricity. 

Haynes’ system cost $22,000 after a 26 percent federal tax credit. In eight to ten years, he expects it will pay for itself with savings on his electric bill. 

“Our payment for the solar system is less than our average electric bills,” he said. “And at the end of 10 years, we’ll own it, and it’ll still be going for another 15 years.”

A person checks temperature on a phone.
The Haynes can keep tabs on the amount their solar system is producing via an app on their phone.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Haynes isn’t part of Ellison’s lawsuit. But he did contact the attorney general’s office to share his experience, which he said wasn’t all negative. Brio paid for damage to his lawn that occurred during installation, and for his electric bill during the time the panels weren’t working, he said.

Haynes said he probably paid more for his solar system than he would have if he’d done his research first. But for him, knowing that the solar panels will be producing clean electricity for years to come makes that investment worthwhile.

“We would do it again, because we have more motivation than just the money,” he said.