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California PUC works to rid solar industry of unscrupulous sellers

Last July, the California Public Utilities Commission conducted a public forum in Huron to hear from consumers about alleged abuses by unscrupulous solar providers. Much of what we heard highlighted the need for more attention to the solar industry and stronger consumer protections.

In Fresno County alone, we learned of more than 40 families victimized by fraudulent sales and marketing practices, predatory lending and financing that left homeowners with huge debts, and solar panels that often failed to produce benefits or savings.

A couple dozen families from Parlier made a caravan carpool trip to the hearing because they were desperate to get out of high loan payments, liens on their homes and abandoned solar panels.

Many of the community members who came to the forum were elderly, monolingual Spanish speakers, farm workers or retired farm workers. Some were disabled, living with limited incomes as Social Security retirees. All were cruelly taken advantage of with false promises and fraudulent sales pitches.

Martha Guman Aceves.jpg
FRANK TAPIA

We heard from community members who described providing a signature on a digital tablet ostensibly to allow a credit check or approve an evaluation of their home, only to find later that they had actually signed contracts to finance solar installation despite never seeing the contract’s terms. They soon were hit with big loan payment charges from finance companies that were almost as high as their mortgages. In some cases, they were on the hook for multiple loans or assessments on the same system. Many were hit with an unexpected large utility true-up payment at the end of the year they couldn’t afford.

Other residents said they were promised tax refunds that never came. Some were told falsely that the government required them to buy solar panels. Still others were promised free systems, but when they signed on an iPad for approval, the document turned out to be a contract with onerous payments. We heard about people being sold solar systems that didn’t work, didn’t have the proper permits and were never connected, with no recourse because vendors had disappeared or gone out of business.

The vast majority of people who work sell, finance and install solar systems to California residents are honest. But the sad fact is that for those who prey on the vulnerable and rip them off, there wasn’t a concerted enough effort to hold them accountable and protect consumers. Too many loopholes let bad actors slip through the cracks.

As a CPUC commissioner, I am committed to doing all I can so the benefits of California’s clean energy policies are accessible to everyone. And while we’ve had some success extending solar energy to economically disadvantaged communities, we have a long way to go to make sure consumers are not misled, lied to or cheated like families we met with in Fresno County. We are working diligently to find all the loopholes and gaps in jurisdiction between various state agencies who regulate the different segments of the solar industry — from solar developers, contractors, sales, and financing — and to close those gaps.

Now, thanks to a new agreement recently signed by the CPUC, the California Contractors State License Board and the California Department of Business Oversight, we are taking a number of concrete steps to strengthen consumer protection. Since some of these fraudulent cases occurred, the California Legislature has also passed bills to address the problem and we are now starting to see the benefits of new protections they created.

Under terms of a September 2018 CPUC Decision, the CPUC and CSLB had been working on a suite of consumer protection measures for solar consumers, and this agreement is an extension of those efforts. We will now require solar providers to upload signed copies of the CSLB Solar Energy System Disclosure Document on the utilities’ websites. Providers must also upload the official solar contract and submit a valid CSLB license number. CPUC staff is also developing standardized solar complaint tracking mechanisms across government agencies.

We are already starting to see results. Among other safeguards, we will now have a way to actually track complaints and help consumers find a remedy. Progress is also being made on several specific cases, like the one where we got a lender in the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program that helps residential and commercial property owners finance energy efficiency to forgive debts for nine homeowners, saving them from losing their homes.

In a renewed spirit of coordination and cooperation, our three agencies have agreed to:

Establish official public-facing points of contact at each agency, and update websites and other outreach materials for easier access by consumers who are interested in installing solar systems or have already done so;

Develop systems to document consumer complaints relating to solar providers for inclusion in the CSLB’s annual report;

Train agency staff to coordinate with community-based organizations on tracking complaints, and;

Participate in inter-agency working groups and other regulatory processes to enhance solar consumer protections.

There are still many questions about how to make past victims whole again, but I am committed to working with colleagues to find the best solution. I’m confident our three agencies working collaboratively will continue to find ways to benefit consumers and help protect them from fraudulent practices in the residential rooftop solar market across California.

Martha Guzman Aceves is a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission.
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