With additional reporting by Virginia Daffron
Forget California. For installers of solar energy, North Carolina is the land of a modern-day gold rush.
While the sun’s bounty in the state hasn’t suddenly changed, a Duke Energy program providing a rebate on residential solar panels has supercharged the market. As part of a 2017 law passed by the N.C. General Assembly, the utility is required to subsidize 20 megawatts of solar capacity annually through 2022, including 5 megawatts per year for home customers in the Duke Energy Progress service area, which covers most of Buncombe County.
Spurred to action by the Duke incentive — roughly $3,600 for a typical 6-kilowatt home system — many in the Asheville area and throughout the state are now looking to install solar panels. Over 1,000 rebate applications were filed by Oct. 29, maxing out Duke’s allocated capacity for 2018. But just as in the original gold rush, the promise of new business may have attracted some questionable prospectors, alleges Mike Davis, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association’s director of membership.
“[The rebate] was a great thing, but it also brought some potential bad actors into the market, doing things like direct sales to customers or canvassing neighborhoods,” Davis says. Some companies attracted by the Duke program, he explains, may be overstating the extent of the rebate, misrepresenting where solar panels can be installed on homes and engaging in deceptive sales tactics.
Matt Dufon, field operations manager for Sundance Power Systems in Weaverville, asserts that he’s seen similar problems associated with the rebate in Western North Carolina. “We’ve seen really aggressive Facebook ads that present it as no money down,” he says. “We’ve repaired poorly installed systems, systems with no permits.”
Other businesses have been cold-calling area residents to pitch solar panels with potentially misleading claims of identity. Telemarketers for a company calling itself Clean Energy Initiative, for example, have informed consumers that the firm has been based in North Carolina for over 25 years, but no business by that name is registered with the N.C. Secretary of State.
One company in particular moved Sundance to issue a warning: Utah-based Brio Energy. In a public press release and an email to the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, both sent in August, former Sundance Director of Communications Erika Schneider accused Brio salespeople of using “predatory tactics” and claimed that Brio customers had complained about the company’s “high-pressure” approach to business.
But Brio co-founder Adam Coomer vigorously denied all allegations of wrongdoing in a phone conversation with Xpress. He said that his business has experienced similar complaints elsewhere in the country but not because of its own behavior. Instead, he claimed that companies such as Sundance take umbrage with Brio due to its national reach.
“It’s very common for an outside-of-the-state company to have a target on its back because local companies that have been there for a while don’t want anybody to come in and take their business,” Coomer said. “People can get as mad as they want about that, but we do our best to make sure our customers are taken care of.”
Regarding the claim that Brio’s tactics are inappropriately forceful, Coomer said the Duke rebate program creates some urgency around sales. Duke has already allocated its rebates for 2018, and a waiting list for 2019 capacity has begun. “I’m sure it’s common for sales guys to let people know that this is probably the best time to do something if you’re going to,” Coomer explained.
Brio’s legal team, said Coomer, is in the early stages of considering a defamation suit against Sundance. “It’s really frustrating for me as a business owner, because I don’t slander people. I don’t like petty disagreements or accusations,” he said. “We’ve done this a long time, and no company is perfect. I feel like we do our best.”
From the field
Sundance’s concerns mirrored comments on social networking sites such as Nextdoor and the West Asheville Exchange Facebook group, where residents including West Asheville’s Kim Andersen expressed unease about their experiences with Brio. Speaking with Xpress, she said that salespeople who claimed to be “partnering with Duke” had quoted her a price of $50,000 for installing a home system — over twice the national average estimate, according to industry website EnergySage — and attempted to lock her into long-term financing for the work.
“If it was my grandma, she would be like, ‘OK! This sounds great!’” Andersen said. “They were telling me that it was this really great thing, and it’s not really. Some people might not check or do any research and then get looped into a 30-year loan — that’s like a house.”
Brio representatives are not trained to identify themselves as affiliated with Duke, Coomer said. The company’s salespeople do, he clarified, ask potential customers if Duke is their utility company to determine if they are eligible for the rebate, which might be misinterpreted by “grumpy customers that hear what they want to hear.”
The company’s Better Business Bureau page also lists 31 complaints over the past three years, although none were filed in Western North Carolina, according to BBB Southern Piedmont and WNC President Tom Bartholomy. The two BBB-listed solar companies in the Asheville area, Sundance and SolFarm Solar Co., have no complaints. Both local businesses also have A+ ratings, while Brio is currently unrated pending the BBB’s review of a formal letter issued by the City of Austin in 2016, which asked the company to cease and desist operations after customers claimed its salespeople had posed as utility employees.
Two consumer complaints from other parts of the state filed with the office of N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein name Brio as well. In one case, a homeowner in Zebulon claimed that the company had conducted a credit check using false income information to approve her for a project, then charged her a $4,885 cancellation fee when she discovered the allegedly fraudulent financing and tried to leave the contract.
Through an email exchange with the homeowner attached to that complaint, Coomer called her concerns baseless and threatened legal action if she did not agree to a civil resolution.
“Your continued barrage of false claims, as well as accusations, along with slander and defamation is not helping your situation,” Coomer wrote. “Going this direction will only make matters worse for you and your pocketbook.”
Brio eventually agreed to refund the fee — on the condition that the homeowner resolve her complaint with Stein’s office and remove or resolve any complaints posted on online review websites such as Yelp or Best Company. The other filed complaint, which also listed misleading finance arrangements, was resolved through a confidential settlement.
Cracking the code
These complaints highlight a larger concern within the state’s solar industry, says Davis with the NCSEA. As demand for solar energy increases, particularly under the financial incentives of the Duke rebate, the group worries that negative word-of-mouth about experiences with renewable energy could undermine trust in established installers.
To that end, Davis and the NCSEA legal team recently drafted a “Solar Business Code” establishing fundamental standards of professionalism for the association’s members. Key points include quoting clear and accurate prices, fully explaining all outside incentive programs and using contracts “that are clear and understandable to consumers.” As of August, any installer who does not conform to the code now risks being expelled from the organization and losing its seal of approval.
“We certainly can’t police the entire market but we can at least try to control what our members are doing through this code,” Davis says. “If I get calls from consumers that are looking to find reputable companies, I certainly direct them straight to that list on our website of the companies that have signed.”
Companies do not have to be headquartered in North Carolina to be signatories to the code — Atlanta-based SolAmerica Energy and Charlottesville, Va.-based Sigora Solar are both NCSEA members. Sundance has also agreed to the code’s terms; Brio has not signed on.
Following the NCSEA’s recommendations may be the best bet for finding reputable solar companies, suggests Duke spokesperson Randy Wheeless. He notes that while the utility feels better “internally” about some installers than others, Duke doesn’t take an active role in consumer protection.
“That’s not our place, to pass judgment on these companies,” Wheeless says. “As long as they’re going through the official process of how to work the rebate and properly fill out the forms, get the rebate for their customers, we’re usually fine with them.”
Wheeless also emphasizes that the utility is not sending any of its own employees to talk with consumers about the rebate. Solar installers who say they’re affiliated with Duke may be using its rebate program, he says, but it’s “stretching the truth” to claim they’re working with the company.
Davis notes that the NCSEA is also working on a residential consumer guide to solar panels, with guidance about what to look for in an installer and what kind of questions to ask. Until that resource is developed, however, he says “buyer beware” is the wisest advice.
“Get a number of quotes from reputable companies. Look to NCSEA’s membership if you want companies that have agreed to conform to the highest professional standards,” he says. “And if you have any suspicion whatsoever that a company may be practicing unscrupulous business practices, get in touch with the N.C. Department of Justice.”