Last year, North Carolina-based contractor Yes Solar Solutions (No. 341) received a call about a disabled veteran who wasn’t seeing the energy savings from his array as he was promised. Yes Solar Solutions hadn’t done the installation but took a look anyway.
“The system was installed completely wrong and facing north,” said CEO Kathy Miller. So Yes Solar Solutions worked with another local contractor to redo the system.
“We are friendly with most of our competitors. We work on industry task forces with them, Solarize programs and utility issues,” Miller said. “But we do find occasional misrepresentation.”
She’s heard of installers claiming that a utility is threatening to stop net metering in order to push the sale; overestimating production on a shady, north-facing roof; and dramatically oversizing a system. Sometimes there’s even fraud, such as including energy efficiency measures in the tax credit deduction for solar.
When our industry is still just trying to educate consumers about solar, such negative experiences can seriously derail us.
Just this year, several other contractors have mentioned similar concerns of unethical competitors to me. I discussed this in a podcast with Jane Weissman, recently retired president and CEO of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). IREC is a non-profit that seeks to empower consumers to make clean energy investments with confidence, so Weissman shared concerns over bad customer experiences.
“It takes a long time to build a sustainable market, and, overnight, it can be destroyed with poor-quality work or poor-quality products,” she said. “Nothing spreads quicker than bad news. You really need to make sure you have happy consumers. Today, a lot of people in the business are looking to grab the quick buck, to make the most sales, to shortcut important steps; that’s where we’re going to potentially fall on our face.”
It’d be a shame to see solar fall when we’ve come so far and when most businesses are committed to quality and passionate about clean energy. But all hope is not lost. Weissman sees a solution in using consumer protection as a way to protect the solar market.
IREC and SEIA have worked to create a culture of consumer protection within solar. IREC developed consumer protection tools, mostly for the residential market. And SEIA released a code of ethics for businesses and an online guide to educate consumers about solar power. SEIA also launched a solar purchase disclosure form this year that it encourages all companies to use to help consumers better understand solar transactions.
IREC was also part of the early effort to create a quality solar workforce, which led to the development of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Obtaining NABCEP certification is a good way to legitimize your company to consumers. “That credential is not an easy one to get and it’s certainly not an easy one to keep,” Weissman said. “That is a real mark of competency…that encourages consumer confidence.”
Yes Solar takes pride in its NABCEP certifications and company accreditation. It also supports associations and invests in memberships and sponsorships that serve to educate the consumer.
“It is not a short-term return for the installer, but it is a long-term investment for the industry,” Miller said.
Yes Solar Solutions also encourages customers to be smart consumers by:
- Looking at customer surveys. Yes Solar uses GuildQuality, which surveys customers shortly after installation and asks them to rate the company and say whether they would recommend it. Yes Solar is proud to boast 100% of customers would recommend it.
- Understanding the financing. There are many good options for home or business owners to finance systems, but financing is an easy way for solar installers to bury information. Yes Solar encourages the customer to know the price per watt, the total cost and amount being financed, products used and expected payback.
- Checking the Better Business Bureau. Beware of claims of being the biggest or best. Yes Solar suggests solar shoppers look for proof of a company’s quality and not fall for the hype.
“We explain to customers that solar has only gotten more affordable. There are many good solar installation companies, easily identified with the suggestions above,” Miller said. “Despite the variations of incentives and legislation—of the ‘solar coaster’ ride—solar isn’t going away. The warranties are long and the support is wide. Go ahead, go solar!”