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Home Solar Growing In Conn., But Consumers Should Read The Fine Print

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
George St. Amand put solar panels on the roof of his home in Enfield a few years ago. He has run into some issues with the array in terms of it occasionally not producing power.

For homeowners looking to put solar panels on their roofs, the main goal is usually pretty clear: saving money on electric bills. But installing solar can sometimes come with complications.

On a corner lot in Enfield, George St. Amand has a two-story house with a pretty flat roof in the back. Not great because solar panels work best at an angle. So for a while, he said, solar companies kept shooting him down.

“Every time I went into, like, Home Depot or Costco or some of the other places where they have the little booths of solar people, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m interested!’” St. Amand said. “For many, many years, I kept getting the same story, that they couldn’t do it.”

But then he found a company that said it could.

“They pulled up the house and they said, ‘Yeah, there’s enough pitch, we can do it.’ And I’m like, ‘Great.’” I signed up … and the agreement was I’d be paying so much a month, because it’s basically a lease.”

And those agreements? Well, they can be complicated, involving national solar companies, local contractors and lenders. St. Amand signed a nearly 30-page contract. But he said he’s pretty satisfied with the deal, especially in the summer.

“I’m saving about $50 bucks a month over what I was during peak time,” he said. “So, I think that’s a win.”

The solar industry has been growing in Connecticut, fueled by cheaper technology and new payment models. Last year alone, more than 5,000 people installed rooftop solar panels.

But the rise has also left some homeowners vulnerable. Connecticut Public reviewed several dozen complaints filed with the Department of Consumer Protection since last year. It’s a relatively small number. But the complaints were from homeowners who said they were promised financial benefits that never materialized. Others signed contracts they didn’t fully understand.

“These agreements are 20 to 30 pages long. They contain a lot of legal information,” said Ed Kranich, with the Connecticut Green Bank, which uses public dollars to leverage private investment in clean energy.

Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
George St. Amand’s watt-hour meter and dual-source inverter. St. Amand said that overall, he’s pretty satisfied with his solar deal, especially in the summer. “I’m saving about $50 bucks a month over what I was during peak time,” he said. “So, I think that’s a win.”

“It’s pretty complicated, some people just don’t get it, or maybe a salesperson will explain it to them and they don’t remember,” Kranich said.

If you’re thinking about going solar, you can buy or lease the panels. Or, in an arrangement that’s similar to a lease, you can buy the power those panels make, while the system is owned and maintained by someone else. That’s called a power purchase agreement, and it’s what St. Amand did.

But his system operator is based in Texas, which meant that when his panels stopped working on two occasions, he had to call an out-of-state company that then had to call someone in Connecticut to make repairs.

All that phone tag took a long time.

“So I call them and they say, ‘Well, we have to research it.’ I’m like, ‘OK,’” St. Amand said.

All told, St. Amand said the second time his panels broke, he didn’t produce any power for about a month. But eventually, he got a credit on his bill for the missed production.

Kranich said it’s important for consumers to figure out what a company will do if the panels don’t work and what their bills will look like over the term of their agreement.

Luke Frey of the Better Business Bureau said there’s a common theme running through the complaints he’s seen in Connecticut.

“A lot of people complain that it actually cost them more money than they thought it was going to,” Frey said. “People feel like they are almost guaranteed to be producing all of this solar power if they get solar panels on their home. And that’s not always the case.”

His advice?

“You really need to be asking about … how well are they going to be able to produce energy. How much direct sunlight does my roof get every day?” Frey said. “Do research online and see what people’s reviews are of these companies.”

Advocates said other states have adopted important consumer protections, like creating mandatory disclosure forms and setting up a process for complaints.

St. Amand said it wasn’t always clear to him whom to call when he had to complain, but now that the problem is fixed, he’s happy with his decision to go solar.

“If you have the exposure and you get enough sunlight, I’d say do it. It’s worth it,” St. Amand said.

As long as the panels work.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.
Jim Haddadin is a data journalist for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer for NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.