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That deal on solar panels could be a scam, warns Idaho Attorney General

Construction crew installing solar panels on a house
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The Idaho Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division has continued to receive complaints about “solar companies’ misleading sales tactics through door-to-door sales and social media advertisements,” an alert from the AG’s said. (Getty Images)

As winter’s gray skies give way to sunshine, some Idaho homeowners will harness those rays — looking for a way to cut utility bills and reduce their use of non-renewable energy.

But consumers should be wary of claims that seem too good to be true, says Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

“There are some very reputable solar companies doing business here in Idaho, but some installers aren’t always 100% honest in their representations to customers. My goal is to shed some light on the issue to make sure Idahoans are prepared and protected in the marketplace,” Wasden said in a consumer alert issued last month.

The Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division has continued to receive complaints about “solar companies’ misleading sales tactics through door-to-door sales and social media advertisements,” the alert said.

Idaho Power, the largest electric utility in the state, also said this month that its customers report “misleading statements by some companies selling residential solar systems.”

Idahoans have filed a number of complaints with Wasden’s consumer protection division in recent years, claiming that solar energy vendors promised financial rewards that never materialized.

“There’s been a bit of a lull during the winter months, but it’s likely we’ll hear from more consumers as the weather warms,” said Scott Graf, spokesperson for the Idaho attorney general.

Most of Idaho’s electricity comes from renewable sources. But solar power is a small slice of that; hydropower is Idaho’s main source of renewable energy.

Nearly 93,000 homes in Idaho are powered by solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The SEIA’s data shows a slow, steady rise in residential solar energy in the past five years, and the association predicts the growth to continue.

Consumers complained, Utah company agreed to train sales reps

The attorney general’s office provided the Idaho Capital Sun a spreadsheet of 16 complaints filed in the past year against nine different companies.

Five of the complaints were against a Utah-based company, Blue Raven Solar.

“Speaking generally, Blue Raven Solar is fully supportive of the Attorney General’s efforts to educate consumers about best practices for hiring a solar contractor,” Blue Raven’s vice president and general counsel wrote in an email to the Sun this month. “Along with Idaho’s utility providers, solar contractors like Blue Raven Solar are trusted with educating homeowners about the accessibility, affordability, and availability of residential rooftop solar. As the state’s largest residential solar contractor, we fully embrace this responsibility.”

The company had already attracted the attorney general’s scrutiny for complaints about its sales representatives.

According to public records, Wasden’s office opened an investigation into Blue Raven in spring 2020. The company in October 2020 signed a voluntary agreement that expires Dec. 31, 2025. Blue Raven denied allegations that it violated any laws but sought to resolve the AG’s concerns, the agreement said.

The AG’s office alleged it had received six complaints about Blue Raven Solar’s business practices since August 2018, including an aggregate complaint from Idaho Power, made up of 12 customer complaints Idaho Power had received between September 2018 and February 2019.

According to the agreement document, Blue Raven Solar cooperated fully with the AG’s office and provided information and records to investigators.

“The Attorney General’s investigation revealed that Blue Raven Solar’s previous training materials included sales methods that, when implemented by the company’s representatives in Idaho, (could) mislead or confuse consumers …” the document said. “Blue Raven Solar discontinued any use of these training materials in March 2020.”

The company agreed to:

  • refrain from using the sales or advertising methods that could mislead or confuse Idaho consumers.
  • comply with Idaho’s Residential Solar Energy System Disclosure Act.
  • not claim to be working with a utility company, unless it had the utility’s permission in writing.
  • not claim that Idaho “is running out of energy resources, lacks renewable energy resources, or must purchase the bulk of its energy from out-of-state,” unless Blue Raven Solar has written proof from an Idaho public utility, the state or U.S. energy authorities.
  • not tell consumers they will get rebates, tax breaks or payments unless the company has written proof.
  • develop a “comprehensive, in-person training program” for certain representatives, by April 2021. The training would cover, among other things, “acceptable and unacceptable consumer practices,” the agreement said.

Finally, the company agreed to pay the AG’s office $7,500 for legal and investigative costs.
But, over the next 12 months, a handful of consumers filed complaints to the AG’s office.