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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Solar power has its upside, but beware

    Mike Clancy walks Thursday, May 18, 2023, toward the garage where he had 36 solar panels installed on its roof at his home in Preston. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mike Clancy talks Thursday, May 18, 2023, about the power inverter, center left, and the revenue meter, center right, mounted on the wall of his garage for the solar panels on the roof of the garage that were installed 15 years ago at his home in Preston. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    The power inverter, left, and revenue meter, right, Thursday, May 18, 2023, mounted on the wall in Mike Clancy’s garage for the solar panels on the roof of his garage that were installed years ago at his home in Preston. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Preston ― Mike Clancy is retired now, but even if he wasn’t on a fixed income he would still appreciate the current monthly bill for electricity at his 2,700-square-foot Colonial farmhouse of $9.62.

    And that includes the cost of charging his wife Janet’s Toyota Prius, plus air conditioning in the summer.

    Fifteen years ago, when he was paying up to $300 monthly for electric bills that always seemed to be climbing, Clancy decided to install a solar-array system atop his house. The cost of the installation was $52,000, but he paid half that thanks to a matching grant from the state that has since disappeared.

    “If I had to pay the entire amount I would not have done solar power,” he said in an email, “but with that matching grant it has been well worth it.”

    Well worth it for some, but others are not so sure. The state reports that homeowners are sometimes fleeced by high-pressure sales tactics among solar installers, and that homeowners do not necessarily save significant amounts of money with solar unless they can afford to buy a system outright and hang onto it for a while.

    Clancy figures he started breaking even with his investment about eight to 10 years in, and for the past five years has essentially been receiving electricity for free, an estimate that jibes with the six- to 10-year payback period advertised by some solar companies. Since the installation, done by SolarWrights in Stonington (later known as Alteris Renewables, which was bought out by Colorado-based Real Goods Solar), Clancy was able to rid himself of his oil tank in the basement and put in a propane generator to take care of his heating needs, but solar handles all his home’s electrical requirements.

    “I get plenty of sun,” he said, pointing to the black solar arrays on the roof. “It blends in with the shingles. You wouldn’t even know it was there.”

    Clancy’s only concern occurred just recently when the inverter that converts solar into electricity started to give out. It took him a while to find someone who would service it, but now it’s back up and running, saving the family thousands of dollars a year.

    It’s also a good deal for the environment, which Clancy admits was important to him.

    “There is no question in my mind that as Americans we have to take serious steps to minimize our carbon footprint and break our dependence on fossil fuel,” he said. “I believe very much in this global warming. To me, it just makes sense.”

    Predatory practices

    Unfortunately, Clancy’s positive experience with solar is not echoed by everyone. Guy Mazzarella of Old Lyme said he signed up with New Jersey-based Vision Solar LLC to install a solar system that barely functions, and when he complained about it the company refused to make repairs.

    He complained to the state Attorney General’s Office, which in March filed a lawsuit against the company, citing more than a dozen complaints statewide.

    “We’re investigating numerous complaints regarding high-pressure solar industry sales tactics, but Vision Solar’s predatory practices are far and away the worst we have seen,” Attorney General William Tong said in a news release. ”Vision Solar preyed on low-income, elderly, and disabled homeowners, pressuring them into unaffordable loans for solar panels that in some cases were never activated.”

    Among complaints cited in the lawsuit were that Vision Solar didn’t get permits for its work, installed unusable systems, overstated potential tax benefits, and may have completed some work without a licensed electrician.

    Vision Solar has denied the claims, but admitted in news reports to certain “missteps” as a growing company while promising to turn its business practices around.

    Mazzarella said in an email he was hoping to save on power bills at his all-electric house, but instead the monthly cost went from $400 to $1,000 when including the cost of the loan associated with using the solar system.

    “I was told I'd be getting money back,” Mazzarella said in an email. “So far I haven't received a penny.”

    Concerns with solar installations have popped up before, most notably the state’s decision last year to block Solar Wolf Energy from doing business in Connecticut. The company later filed for bankruptcy.

    Complaints about solar installers have led the Attorney General’s Office to post some guidance for consumers interested in harnessing the sun for their electric needs.

    “Solar power purchase agreements or lease agreements are often long-term, complex, and can be expensive,” the office said in a release. “While electric rates are high and we are all looking for ways to save money, consumers should never feel pressured into a solar contract or any other major home project.”

    Among the considerations that consumers should look at before deciding to invest in a solar system, one of the most important is the size and siting of a homeowner’s roof, which preferably should be south facing, though even north-facing installations can return 60% of the power of the preferred siting, according to one industry analyst, David Skillman, director of energy market policy for Sunnova Energy Corp. in Houston, Texas.

    Installation can be tricky, and could require roof reinforcement or replacement, the state has warned, so know what you are getting into before signing up for solar. But Skillman said just about any roof except slate is suitable for solar installation.

    The state on its website said consumers should be wary of promises from solar companies before a full analysis of the expected solar-energy output is done.

    “Never make a decision based on online calculations or estimates, which may be based on data from other parts of the country,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a release.

    The state also said to be wary of so-called “no-cost systems.” While some solar installers may not charge initially, monthly payments can be high.

    Consumer options

    Federal tax credits for solar installations are noteworthy right now because they recently were renewed at a rate of 30% through 2032, according to Skillman, though purchasers will get the credit only if they owe federal income taxes. He added that Connecticut homeowners “may qualify for a property tax exemption on the added home value from their solar system” and that “low-income households may also qualify for special rates through programs offered by the Connecticut Green Bank.”

    Solar installation usually takes only a few days to complete, according to Skillman, but can be a six-month process considering the planning and approvals that go into it.

    “The solar installer will custom design a PV (photovoltaic) system to fit each particular home,” Skillman said. “The installer will obtain a building permit from the local town hall and an interconnection permit from the local utility. After installation, the local authorities will inspect the system to ensure it meets all local and state regulations.”

    There are three options for solar systems: purchase, lease or a power purchase agreement.

    In a purchase situation, the homeowner pays cash or arranges financing, and then is responsible for maintaining and repairing it. Purchasers can benefit from tax credits.

    With a lease, consumers pay a fixed monthly rate to use solar panels for an agreed-upon term. At the end of the term, the homeowner can then buy the system, give it back or renew the lease.

    Under power purchase agreements, consumers pay a monthly fee based on the amount of electricity they use. There is a cost saving, but rates can increase over time.

    One warning here, according to the state: People who lease solar systems or buy into power purchase agreements “may have difficulty selling their home since the new buyer and the company need to agree to transfer the lease or PPA.”

    But Skillman cited several studies and surveys that indicate homeowners are looking for energy-efficient homes.

    “This push for energy-efficient homes may translate to higher home sale prices for sellers, particularly in certain housing markets, such as those with high electricity rates” such as Connecticut, Skillman said in an email.

    On the grid

    Also notable is that solar homes are still part of the power grid, which means homeowners will be paying their electricity provider a certain amount unless their system is able to handle all their energy needs. Sometimes, a solar system can send energy back to the grid, resulting in a credit if a home generates more power than it is able to use.

    Clancy saw a credit earlier this year because his house produced more energy than it consumed, a fact he attributes to the large roof, flat, clear lot and almost unlimited sunshine going directly toward his south-facing solar panels. Unfortunately, when his inverter started dying, he did have to pay over $80 to Eversource Energy one month.

    Still, he feels lucky for investing in solar at the right time and getting a good company to do it.

    As for others considering the same, he said the most important factor is age.

    “If you are building a new home in your 30s, you would be foolish not to consider doing solar,” Clancy said. “If you are in your 60s it might not be a good idea.”

    He advised looking into grants and credits, as well as who will service the system when it breaks.

    “Obviously, I had the financial means to purchase my solar system, and most people do not have that luxury,” he said. “Basically, my home has become very self sufficient. I have been very lucky and thankful for the investments made in my home.”

    l.howard@theday.com

    Tips for people looking to go solar

    • Not all homes are equally suited for solar. The size of the roof, orientation of the home, amount of sun exposure, and the home’s energy demands are all important factors to consider. Solar companies may ask about removing trees to increase sun exposure, which is an additional expense.

    • Some roofs require reinforcement or replacement before solar installation. This is a separate cost that solar companies typically will not pay for. And, if roof work is required during the useful life of the system, the homeowner may have to pay to remove the panels.

    • Compare reviews and prices. As with any major purchase, you should compare other consumers’ reviews of solar companies and shop around to be sure you’re getting a fair deal.

    • Know who you are doing business with, and ensure they are properly licensed in Connecticut. Many solar companies contract out their marketing and installations to third parties, so you might be asked to sign a contract with a different company than you thought.

    • Never sign any agreement with a solar company under pressure. You should never feel pressured to read a contract quickly, let alone on the spot on a salesperson’s tablet or computer. And you may ask a visiting salesperson to leave your home at any time.

    • Under Connecticut law, you may cancel your contract any time before midnight the third business day after a transaction.

    Connecticut consumers who believe they have been harmed by a solar company’s practices should file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General here: https://www.dir.ct.gov/ag/complaint/ or with the Department of Consumer Protection here: https://portal.ct.gov/DCP/Complaint-Center/Consumers---Complaint-Center.

    – Source: Connecticut Attorney General’s Office

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