Is Solar Power in your area a Scam?

By Daniel Harder

Solar Sales

For most people, when they hear something described as a “scam”, they think of Snake Oil salesman. Or perhaps phone calls from foreign countries, claiming you must reconcile your previously-unheard-of debt to the IRS by immediately purchasing Target Gift Cards. Generally speaking, the “scam” is associated with one of two things: 1) a product which does not work as advertised, or 2) a person who is not who they claim to be. Most everyone would agree, only a silly person would try and claim Target is a “scam”, or Visa Giftcards are a “scam” simply because that is the tool the “scam-artist” tried to use in order to take advantage of them. And yet, this line of thinking is precisely what has become commonplace in many peoples’ minds when they think about Solar Power in the U.S. 

Having worked in the Solar Industry for most of my professional life, helping thousands of homeowners and business owners take advantage of Federal, State and Utility incentives geared towards increasing local, renewable energy production and consumption across the U.S. (with nearly 17kW of Solar on my own home), the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how, seemingly, one of the only things growing as fast as the Solar Power industry itself, is the misinformation ABOUT Solar. Let me be clear, I am not at all suggesting the Solar Industry is not mostly to blame for the general lack of understanding around Solar technology, legislation, programs, processes, etc. The sad truth, is that most of the people carrying business cards with Titles like “Consultant”, “Professional”, “District Manager”, “Director”, “VP”, or (heaven-forbid) even “President/CEO”, from the tiniest local Solar providers to the largest, most widely known nationwide brands, often do not know anything more about Solar technology and legislation than the average homeowner who may have accidentally turned on the Science Channel once while they were bored. That being said, it still surprises me how otherwise intelligent people are so quick to label an entire industry and one of the most sophisticated and common-sense energy generation technologies in the world a “scam”. If Solar Power is a “scam”, then it is truly one of the greatest cons in the history of humanity. The evil overlords of this massive Solar Power “scam” have somehow managed to dupe NASA, the Pentagon, every branch of the U.S. Military and nearly every corner of both public and private industry across the U.S. for decades.

I have heard some creative conspiracy theories, but the “Solar Power is a scam” shtick is just a little too far-fetched to take seriously. According to studies conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture, “If all the sunlight energy striking the Earth’s surface in Texas alone could be converted to electricity, it would be up to 300 times the total power output of ALL THE POWER PLANTS IN THE WORLD.” (emphasis added). To put this in perspective, if we could harness just .2% of the total Solar Resource reaching the Earth’s surface, it would give us 1.5x the electricity the entire Human Race consumes.

I know what most of you are probably thinking at this point: “If Solar isn’t a scam, then why did my friend (or co-worker, or cousin, or dad, or distant acquaintance, or random person on Social Media, etc.) who HAS Solar tell me it was?” Well, that’s really pretty simple. As T.S. Eliot has so eloquently stated, “Nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.” When I was younger, I worked for my brother’s Cell Phone shop. He specialized in fixing, trading and selling new and used Smartphones (back when “Blackberries” were a thing). One of my jobs was to scour the local classified ads and find people who were looking to trade or sell their used Smartphone. I will never forget, one day, meeting a young kid at a Starbucks near the local university to pay him cash for his (at the time) Like New iPhone. It was a killer deal, and I knew my brother was going to be VERY proud if I was the first one to pick up this shiny, brand new looking iPhone at the price I had “negotiated” the owner down to. I met him and went through all the usual steps: I pulled the brand new looking phone out of its box, connected to the public WiFi; looked for any signs of water damage; checked the IMEI number with the cell service provider to make sure the phone worked and was not reported lost or stolen. It all checked out, so I handed over the extraordinarily low amount of cash the young kid had agreed to let me pay (after insisting he was just trying to sell it quick to make his car payment, or some such story). I was so excited that I went straight to the office to show my brother, the Cell Phone wizard, my prize purchase. Within seconds of looking the phone over, he handed it back to me and said, “Great job, bro… it doesn’t even have a camera. At least you got a good deal.” And then went back to his work. I couldn’t believe it! On all of my previous purchases for the shop, I had never even thought to check if somebody had removed the camera from the otherwise brand new phone (who does that?!). Thankfully, I only got scammed out of a couple hundred dollars of my brother’s money. In this case, it was easy to admit I could have done better to make sure I was not taken advantage of. But just imagine if that one transaction carried with it a 20-year contract, and a monthly payment as a reminder of how I got screwed over by some punk kid in a Starbucks? I still don’t think I would blame Apple or AT&T, and I certainly wouldn’t tell everyone I came in contact with that they should stick to landlines forever because “Cell Phones are a scam!” That would be absurd. However, I can admit, it would be a hard pill to swallow, and I can understand why people will blame products or even entire industries as a way of insulating themselves from the constant reminder that they let someone take them for a ride. In other words, knowing how woefully uneducated many people on the “front lines” of the Solar Industry often are, it is not difficult for me to put myself in a customer’s shoes and sympathize with them. After all, his business card said he was a “Director of Sales” in the company!? Why should I expect he only knows as much about the product he’s selling as I know about cultural norms in the Principality of Liechtenstein?

This brings us back to where we began: “Is Solar Power in your area a scam?” The simplest answer is: “It depends.” Anything can be used to scam someone, including cars, houses, services, gift cards, telephones etc. In that regard, yes, Solar Power CAN BE used to scam you if you do not know what to look for before you make the purchase. The two most common ways people get scammed by Solar companies are, 1) Under-Sized Systems, and 2) Over-Priced Systems, both of which can leave you with a hefty Solar payment in addition to a leftover bill to your Utility provider. Here are a few tips to help you take advantage of Solar Power without putting yourself in a position where you can be taken advantage of:

  1. Qualify the person trying to sell it to you: This is the first, and possibly most important step in making sure you get a fair deal in your Solar transaction. It is important to note, there is a very big difference between being “new” at something (Solar Power is one of the fastest growing new energy sources in the U.S., which mean LOTS of new people) and being “uneducated”. Let your Sales Rep spill his accolades, and tell you how many families he has helped, and how many happy customers he has, and then ask some basic, open-ended questions about Solar Technology like: 
    1. What do you expect the Solar Access and TSRF numbers are like on my roof?
    2. Tell me about inverter clipping?
    3. Tell me about the AC Stack Ratio your company uses?
    If you get blank stares, then your Sales Rep is either brand new, or he is uneducated. Be patient with the Rookies! A good new rep, working for a knowledgeable company may not be able to answer these questions on their first day (or even within their first year), but they will get you the answers and get back to you. A seasoned-yet-uneducated rep will talk a lot without saying much and pray you don’t bring any of those weird questions up again.
  2. Know Your Needs: It is important to have a good understanding of how much power you use, and what changes may impact the amount of power you will consume in years to come. Are your children grown and about to move out of the house, or are they still running around in diapers and just barely learning how to turn lights on? These considerations are important when making a decision for your energy needs over the next 25+ years.
  3. Be wary of Outlandish Claims: Some of my favorites are, “Did you know your electric Rates have TRIPLED in the last 10-years”, and “If you don’t go Solar now, you probably won’t get another chance!” Yes, Electric Rates do go up over time (you can see for yourself by going over the Residential Utility data collected by the Energy Information Administration for your State), and Solar Incentives do diminish overtime, but these sorts of high-pressure tactics should make anyone uneasy about the type of person/company they are considering doing business with.  
  4. Shop Around: A good company is never afraid of a competitive quote, and statistically, customers who shop around for quotes end up learning a lot about what matters to them in the purchase while also getting the best deals. Our company is confident in the service we provide and the products we sell, and knowledgeable customers tend to be the best referring customers, so we are happy to compare quotes from other companies. Just remember these tips when trying to compare apples-for-apples:
    1. Panel Count vs. Total Watts: The “number of panels” does not mean anything in the same way the number of doors on your car has nothing to do with how the engine performs. What matters is the total wattage and the panel placement. 
    2. Proper System Designs: Many companies do not know the required Fire Code setbacks in their own markets, and they will design systems to make their own installation process easier; not to make you more power. The goal should always be to get the most power with the fewest panels. A properly designed system achieves this.
    3. Solar Production is Science; not Sorcery: A company who tells you their panels are “More Efficient” without showing you how production numbers are calculated, is probably just making stuff up… because they can. In fact, there is no regulation over what a solar company presents as their “Production Estimate”, and many Solar design tools and programs will let you make up whatever numbers you want your proposal to show. You should always be suspicious of a company who claims they can create more power than a competitor even with less wattage on the roof. Generally speaking, more conservative production estimates mean more honest and knowledgeable companies. Many people sign the deal with the company who showed the flashiest numbers, and they ended up paying the price in the long run as the bills from their electric utility continued pouring in after their Solar PTO.
  5. Talk to Friends and Family who have Solar: REMEMBER! The number of people who are dissatisfied with Solar make up a tiny fraction of the total population of people who have decided to create their own energy through Solar Panels. Keep that in mind as you speak with others about their experience. Find out what they liked about their arrangement and also what they didn’t like, and use that information when making your final decision.
  6. Reach Out and Ask Us: RALOS is on a mission to turn things around in the Solar Industry. The more educated people are one these programs, the better it will be for all of us. If you are curious for yourself, or even for a friend or family member who is interested in going Solar, we are here to help. We offer fully designed and properly engineered systems and proposals at no-cost, so even if you’re getting a killer deal from your Brother, or from your nephew’s-best friend’s-girlfriend’s-parents who started a Solar company last week, we’d be happy to look over your design and proposal to ensure you get the best product to suit your needs for years to come.