We recently wrote about the perils of click-bait, solar lead generation sites in our post, Researching Solar? Careful Where You Click! Over the weekend it became clear to me just how pernicious this can be.
While wasting part of my Sunday morning on Facebook, I came across an ad from something calling itself The Solar Institute which was making the claim that “California Approves Program to Help Middle-Class Families Make the Switch to Solar at No Cost". Wow, that was news to me, but gee maybe The Solar Institute - a name that seemed awfully familiar - knew something I didn’t. I had better check this out.
And down the rabbit hole I went…
First and foremost, it is important to point out that the image to the left is not the website for The Solar Living Institute which is entirely legit, and which helps train solar professionals. But it certainly seems that the attempted name confusion is entirely intended.
No, this is quite the clever site - notice that they managed to slip in an Elon Musk quote to borrow some of that special magic. It starts by claiming that it will cost you $32,000 to install solar which overstates the initial expenditure by about 100% on an average 4 kW project (to say nothing of the fact that you then get 30% of that cost back in the form of the Federal tax incentive).
But then it gets to the point: “A novel initiative is, however, looking to change that." Wow, really? This must be the program that California “approved,” right? So what is this incredibly novel initiative?
From the website:
Alternative Energy Solar Project has been made promotional manager over the Middle Class Affordable Solar Homes (M-CASH US) project, one of the country’s first dedicated solar repayment system for middle class families. The goal is to install solar arrays to over 32,000 homes by the end of 2016…
The state government in California has talked about how they can contribute through raising money to be able to provide more rebates. In the attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and move toward installing solar arrays. In total, the solar program has totted up to an impressive movement.
By ploughing at least 30% of the money from government incentives and using private investors to back the solar installation, the project aims to kill two birds with one stone – saving Middle-Class families money, while also making big fossil fuel polluting companies help to cut energy emissions in the state even further.
Anyone who is currently living in a neighborhood in California that is classed as middle-class is qualified to apply to get the arrays installed. The sun sets on the initiative as the year ends in 2016, so if you’re living in the state, you might want to jump on board soon.
Indeed, better jump right on board. They sure make it sound official, what with references to the “state government in California” and all, but who are these people? The website says nothing about who they are and their contact information gives only an 855 number but no address, or license number or anything else. (Doing a whois on the domain name is equally fruitless.) Calling that number gets you to something identified as “Free Solar Quotes” - a lead gen website.
But since it identified Alternative Energy Solar Project as the “promotional manager” for this “M-CASH” program we decided to Google them, going farther down the hole…
Turns out that wasn’t as easy as we expected, though we did find a Reddit asking whether the company was a scam (and concluding it was, after determining that the photo of the alleged CEO was, in fact, a stock photo!) Ultimately we found their website - but no more CEO photos, or any info about who they are, which is odd for a government-ordained program. In fact, the home page is nothing more than a sign-up page, but some additional sleuthing led us to some landing pages within the site. There we came across this:
There is some sly stuff going on here. Perhaps my personal favorite is the reference to the Private Utilities Commission - cause, that’s a thing. Or how about “…helps connect companies who have set aside private funds raised for the California Solar Initiative be set aside for programs assisting middle-class households in accessing solar technology." I have no idea what that word salad is supposed to mean, other than to somehow try to associate this scammy offering with the California Solar Initiative (which went out of business in 2014).
So yeah, lucky us, California, this great program has made it “all the way to California” - now don’t you feel special? Well maybe not so special, since we then found this:
What do you know, this exact same program made it “all the way to New Jersey” from Maryland, too! (Though Delaware just isn’t very big there - with apologies to Delawarians everywhere.) In fact, for sport you can replace the -ca or -nj with other state postal abbreviations to see what other poor states are being targeted by this scam!
So what, at the end of the day, is this all about? Leases. Yeah. All this nonsense alluding to state-sponsored programs is nothing more than lead-gen gymnastics to lure in consumers and stick them with a lease (or PPA).
These are the sorts of deceptive business practices that are giving the solar industry such a black eye, and one can only hope that the FTC and state AG’s are paying attention. But we in the industry have an obligation to shut this sort of thing down. If you purchase leads you need to know how those leads are generated and not support lead generators who are engaged in these sorts of practices. Make no mistake - these lead-gen operators are making money because solar companies are buying what they are selling! We can help ensure consumers are better served simply by refusing to participate - or we can wait for the regulators to step in and make all of our lives more difficult.
For the record, there are legit entities trying to connect solar customers with reputable solar installers, with everyone from NABCEP to Sunmetrix, to even this fellow in Australia. But we need to make sure that the scammers aren’t carrying the day, and we do that by refusing to participate.
Advocates of solar, such as the crew at Run on Sun, take it for granted that going solar is win-win for our clients, such as the folks at Chandler School. But sometimes we forget that non-adopters have real concerns about putting solar on their roofs. In this, our last cut on the data that we received from NREL (read our two earlier posts on who chooses Run on Sun and what generally keeps people away from solar), we wanted to address the greatest concerns that people have so that they don’t need to be scared of solar.
First off, here’s our last chart:
Let’s take these concerns one at a time.
Perhaps the greatest overall concern turns on cost and its counterpart, value.
The greatest concern expressed was over the affordability of going solar. The good news is that solar has never been more affordable. Back in 2007 when we were first doing installations, solar systems cost more than $8/Watt installed. Today we are at half of that cost, and even though most rebate programs have ended, the federal tax credit is still at 30%, meaning that more and more people can now afford to go solar!
Still, some consumers are concerned about getting enough bang for their buck - they wonder if solar really provides value commensurate with its cost. To that we reply - it depends. It depends on the quality of the equipment that you choose and the quality of the installer who puts that equipment on your home. But how can a consumer know if they are getting quality? It starts by taking the time to do your research - get multiple bids so you have a basis for comparison. Be wary of low-ball bids - prices below market are a clear sign that there will either be nasty surprises by way of change orders down the road, or that your contractor is cutting corners.
As to the quality of the contractor doing the work, ask for references and check them. In California, look at the Contractors State License Board website to see if there are complaints against the contractor, and see if they are certified by NABCEP, the gold-standard for quality in the solar industry. Review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List can also help.
Going solar is a significant financial investment and it should be treated as such. We have written at great length about the problems with solar leases, but even a favorable loan, like a home equity line of credit, carries costs. Ideally, savings from your lower electric bill should offset the cost of financing the system, and once the system is paid off, you will continue to derive those savings for the lifetime of the system.
When you get a proposal for going solar, it should clearly spell out what your savings will be in Year 1, and provide a reasonable projection for your payback period over time. But be careful about proposals with overly rosy projections based on unrealistic assumptions (like energy costs going up 7% each year for 25 years), or ones that don’t disclose their assumptions at all!
Another general area of concern turns on how well a solar power system will hold up over time, and what it will cost you to maintain it.
In solar, like most everything else, you get what you pay for, if you’re lucky! Every day we get emails inviting us to purchase cut-rate panels at a fraction of the price we pay for top-of-the-line panels from LG. We delete those emails without a second thought because we have no interest in dealing with junk. But someone is buying those panels, and they are ending up on the homes of consumers. Again, get multiple bids and do your research. Selecting quality products from established manufacturers is your best assurance that you will have reliable equipment that will last. (We install LG panels and Enphase microinverters because we believe that they are the best value for our clients.)
We are always a bit baffled by this one, since a solar power system is largely maintenance free. We think this concern arose because leasing companies promised to perform all maintenance needed for the system, but this is a hollow promise since there is really nothing to do! At Run on Sun we provide a ten-year warranty on our work, and we support the manufacturer’s warranties for the parts - so if something does go wrong, it will be fixed with no hassle for our clients.
The final category of concerns centers around harm to your most valuable asset, your home. Solar, when done right, will improve that value, but that is not guaranteed.
One obvious point of concern has to do with damage to your roof. After all, a solar array on a pitched roof is held in place by lag bolts driven into the roof rafters so that means lots of holes being put into your roof. However, when done correctly, as shown in the photo on the right, all of those penetrations are covered by a flashing that guarantees that water cannot penetrate.
The other issue to consider is the status of your roof - if it is nearing the end of its usable life you will want to re-roof before you put solar on it!
Image from the very cool Solar Hall of Shame page by
Green Sun Energy Services, LLC. (Used w/permission)
Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and we love seeing solar on a home. (Although not when it is installed like the bozos did in the photo on the left!)
Still, not everyone wants to see solar panels, and many of our installations are done so as to make the installation as inconspicuous as possible. (In the photo below the only way to see that lovely layout is to go up on the roof.) A properly designed and installed system should look clean and neat. We take pride in our craftsmanship and we work very hard to make our systems as visually appealing as they are economically beneficial.
Finally, there is the concern that adding solar will make it harder to sell your home, which can be true if you have leased the system since the new owner has to assume that lease as part of the deal. We have written at length about the perils of solar leases, and making it harder to sell your home is just one of many reasons to give them a wide berth.
But if you were smart enough to avoid a lease, the latest research indicates that having a solar power system installed increases the value of your home. How much? Roughly $4.00/Watt for a typical installation - which pretty much means that the cost of the system is offset by the increase in resale value! Try doing that with granite countertops!
Consumers need not be scared of solar, provided that they choose a reputable installer and pay for quality equipment. At Run on Sun we specialize in both, so give us a call today!
Everyone knows that when it comes to Pasadena, Run on Sun is the premier installer of solar PV systems for residential, commercial, and non-profit clients (if you doubt it, just ask us!). But we have one other cool thing in common - we are both marking milestone birthdays this year!
While our hometown is turning 130, Run on Sun is turning 10 years old this year! (Which, if you think about it, is nearly 130 in solar-installer years!) So when we heard that the folks at Pasadena Weekly were looking to feature ads that wished the City a Happy Birthday, we just had to get into the act! (If you are in the Pasadena area, you will find the ad - with art work by that Solar Kid Julia who will soon be a college sophomore - on page 42.)
Happy Birthday to us both, and many happy returns!
(Editor’s Note: This is our second of two articles looking at data provided to us by NREL researcher Benjamin Sigrin as part of his SEEDS investigation. To read more about that project and our first post analyzing this data, please see: Who Chooses Run on Sun?)
While some 400,000 California homes and businesses have gone solar, there are still many folks out there who think about solar but ultimately don’t pull the trigger. The SEEDS data provides some interesting insights into the reasons why that might happen - and in the process, provides some pointers for what we as an industry can do better.
To get a handle on why consumers don’t become solar clients, it is first important to know why they were looking into solar in the first place…
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the number one reason that non-adopters cited for looking into solar was to save money on their energy bills. After all, that is what most advertising in the industry is focused on, “Save money by going solar!" Which is fine, as far as it goes, but there is the risk that some of those ad claims create unrealistic expectations among consumers.
Some of the other initial motivators are quite interesting, including seeing solar being installed on another person’s home. This is classic secondary-adoption behavior, and it suggests that we are moving away from the pioneering, early-adopters and into the general public. But unlike those pioneers, the general public is likely to be far more skeptical regarding claims by solar sales people!
So how are folks first connecting with a solar installer? For folks in SoCal, this chart will come as no surprise…
Nearly 60% first made contact by having someone show up at their door! This gives rise to the following likely scenario: consumer has been suffering from high energy bills when an aggressive salesperson shows up on their door, promising amazing savings (and frequently at “No Cost to You!”), and then doesn’t leave until the hapless homeowner signs on the dotted line. The likelihood of this scenario is bolstered by this graph that we used in our initial post…
More than 40% of all solar consumers spoke to only one solar company! Clearly for a sizeable percentage of consumers those high-pressure tactics are effective in closing the sale, but we are very concerned that they are breeding a backlash that will damage the industry in the long term (more on that in a future post).
The second most common way to first come in contact with an installer is via a recommendation, although that only occurs one-third as often as finding a stranger on your doorstep! As solar becomes more mainstream, we expect the number of first contacts by way of recommendation to go up, and hopefully the number of uninvited house guests to decline.
The bottom ranked means are particularly depressing as they include conventional advertising, review/research websites (like Yelp or Angie’s list) and the ever popular, but obviously ineffective, website forms.
These are all the means by which prospective clients are getting into the solar sales funnel, but where are they dropping out? The survey data provides some insights there, too…
Money, it seems, is still the number one impediment to going solar - and this despite the availability of zero-money down leasing programs. (Perhaps people are looking more closely into the fine print of those programs and realizing that they aren’t the great deal that they are cracked up to be?) However, the dataset of folks who did not go forward reaches back several years, and prices (and consumer access to financing) were more daunting years ago than they are today.
Which makes the second reason cited a greater cause for concern: nearly 40% cited the inability to find a “trustworthy and competent installer!" To be sure, there is no shortage of installation companies out there, so it is in the trust and competence areas that we are failing as an industry to meet more than a third of consumers’ expectations!
While we like to think that we score well on both counts (and our clients would agree!), we think there are some simple ways for consumers to overcome this hurdle. First, do some homework - if you want to find a competent installer, go look where they hang out: the NABCEP website. Second, talk to your family, friends, and co-workers. With 400,000 installs in California alone, you already know people who have gone solar, so seek them out and hear what they have to say. And finally, get more than one bid! A solar installation is a major purchase (no matter how it is financed) so it is in your best interest to shop around.
Recent years have seen the number of solar energy systems grow exponentially as the affordability of solar and the environmental benefits make more and more sense for consumers. By the end of 2016 global solar installations will reach 310 Gigawatts! Solar already provides more than 1 percent of total energy produced and that number will continue to climb!
Spreading solar power is definitely a good thing for the planet and our pocketbooks! But there’s an elephant in the room we really need to tackle. What happens to solar panels at the end of their life? In the US, they frequently end up in landfills. As the solar industry grows, so does concern over the environmental impact of the full lifecycle for these rooftop electronics.
A rooftop photovoltaic solar system provides wonderfully clean energy for the 25-30 year lifespan of the panels. Indeed panels installed in the 70’s and 80’s are still producing power so it is possible the latest technology could last much longer than 30 years! But the fact remains that we need to find a solution to the inevitable piling up of end-of-life panels sooner rather than later if we truly aim to transition to a clean renewable energy source through solar power. Recycling is particularly important because of the valuable, and sometimes rare, materials used to make panels. In addition to glass, aluminum and plastics PV panel production includes the following long list of elements, some of which are not widely available: Si, Al, Ag, Cd, Te, In, Ge, Mo, Ga, Cu, Se, Zn. With limited recycling, these materials could go to waste after a few decades of shining bright as a solar panel…rendering them far from “renewable"!
In an industry that, from a power-generation standpoint, has plenty of environmental credibility, solar manufacturers will have to receive either enough pressure or incentives to develop costly recycling programs. Panel manufacturers certainly are aware of the issue and many would like to ensure their products are as sustainable as possible while taking advantage of reusing panels’ critical elements. The Silicon Valley Toxic’s Coalition reported that 14 of the companies surveyed for their Solar Scorecard have said they would support public policy to reduce waste. Some solar companies are ahead of the game and already have collection programs in place; particularly in Europe where policy already pushes them to do so. Third party companies in Europe, such as PV Cycle, are actually doing quite well in the panel recycling industry, achieving a process for recovering 96% of a silicon panel’s materials! Here in the US, however, there simply aren’t enough places to recycle panels and there aren’t enough panels (yet!) to make developing these solar waste programs economic.
In Europe, solar panel disposal falls under the European Union’s Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive and is strictly regulated. Universal regulation doesn’t exist in the U.S. at the federal level yet. However, state policy will likely be the initial driver for PV disposal programs.
As the leader in US solar installations with a call to reach 50% renewables by 2030 California should definitely be the state to set the bar in addressing PV waste. In fact, the California Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials enacted the Photovoltaic Panel Collection and Recycling Act in 2015. Senate Bill 489 addressed the difficulty in categorizing solar panels as hazardous waste versus universal waste. To be classified as hazardous and subjected to regulation, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). But most panels pass the TCLP test. By designating them as universal waste the state can subject them to universal waste management regulations. Also encouraging… SB 489 states the legislature’s intent to:
(1) Foster a comprehensive and innovative system for the reuse, recycling, and proper and legal disposal of end-of-life photovoltaic modules.(2) Encourage the photovoltaic module industry to make end-of-life management of photovoltaic modules convenient for consumers and the public, to ensure the recovery and recycling of photovoltaic modules, which is the most efficient and environmentally safe disposition of end-of-life photovoltaic modules, by developing a plan for recycling end-of-life photovoltaic modules in the state in an economically efficient manner.
The bill requires that the department collect an annual administrative fee for the PV Panel Collection Administration Account. The Photovoltaic Panel Collection Administration Fund is established in the State Treasury and will cover the department’s costs for implementation and subsequent programs followed by all California photovoltaic panel manufacturers, groups, or organizations subject to solar panel recycling requirements.
However, the vast majority of panels manufactured outside California state lines aren’t affected by the state bill. We must work at the national level and with other states to adopt a plan to deal with both domestic and internationally manufactured PV waste if we hope to continue to grow a truly renewable energy resource. Consumers and stakeholders across the solar industry need to work together to demand action!
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