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Attorney General’s Office investigates surge of solar panel installation complaints
Iowa office is investigating 15 solar panel companies
By Kate Kealey, - Iowa Capital Dispatch
Jul. 14, 2022 4:58 pm
Out-of-state solar panel installers are publishing advertisements riddled with misleading information regarding Iowa’s solar tax credit and charging thousands of dollars to customers who are seeing no change in their electrical bills.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office currently is investigating 15 solar panel companies after an increase in consumer complaints.
Often the companies are located in other states and will hire local subcontractors, according to Lynn Hicks, chief of staff for the Attorney General’s Office.
“The kind of heartbreaking stuff we are hearing is people have paid a lot of money, and they still do not have solar power to their home,” Hicks said.
From 2019 through 2021, 15 complaints about solar energy systems were submitted to the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.
In 2022 alone, the division received 40 complaints.
Among complaints are misleading advertisements informing consumers if they install solar panels through a certain company, the consumer automatically will qualify for the state tax credit.
Hicks said some ads even show a woman pretending to be Gov. Kim Reynolds guaranteeing the credit.
In 2021, the Iowa Legislature adjourned for the year without extending Iowa’s solar tax credit. This resulted in 750 Iowans missing out on an average of $3,000.
In June, the real Iowa governor signed a modified version of the solar energy tax credit.
The legislation allowed the Department of Revenue to consider previously rejected applications due to expired benefits.
It also reopened and extended the deadline for installations.
“We are just letting people know there is no guarantee that you are going to get a tax credit,” Hicks said.
“If you are relying on those tax credits to afford this, then don’t do that because there is no guarantee that you are going to get the tax credit.”
Hicks said when companies are out of state, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office either can subpoena them or work with attorneys generals’ offices in other states.
Iowa Attorney General’s Office currently is meeting with and gathering responses from solar power companies that have generated complaints.
Hicks said the investigation isn’t intended to discourage people from purchasing solar panels, but he recommended consumers turn to personal referrals as opposed to online ads when shopping for installation companies.
“There are some good companies out there. I just encourage people to do their homework,” Hicks said.
“You can check online reviews, if you know somebody else who has solar panels, talk to them … . We are just encouraging people to do their due diligence.”
Complaints are wide ranging
Mark McDonald and his wife, of Chariton, decided solar energy would be a good way to cut their electricity bills while they left the state for the winter months.
In August 2021, McDonald contacted a salesperson from what was then called SunPro Solar System about making the switch. ADT recently purchased the company.
McDonald first mentioned to the salesperson that he needed solar power by Dec. 1 before they left. The salesperson told McDonald it would not be a problem.
In November, the panels were placed on McDonald’s house after he complained to the company about the looming deadline.
“I think they just came down here and slapped them up on the roof thinking, ‘Oh, that will keep him quiet for a while,’ and that is as far as it went,” McDonald said.
McDonald had scheduled his energy company to shut off his power on Dec. 2, expecting the project to be finished. Instead, he received a call from Alliant Energy saying the solar panel company never hooked up the panels to McDonald’s house.
When McDonald returned home in March, the company agreed to complete the project upon his arrival. Even though the installers did arrive when scheduled, McDonald said he still didn’t have the solar power connected to his house.
Every time the company arrived, McDonald said the workers were helpful. The problems centered on communication with the project managers.
After losing count of how many new project managers he has talked to, McDonald said he heard the same thing over and over — in 20 to 30 days, the project will be complete.
“Well, they tell me they can see what’s been done,” McDonald said. “But at the same time, one project manager says, ‘Well, we need pictures of the placards,’ and I say, ‘Ma’am, this was done four weeks ago. Can you not tell that on your project information?’
“So apparently, there’s a bad mess up there, too.”
Starting out the project, the McDonalds paid a downpayment of $10,000. They then paid another $20,000 for the panels to be placed on their roof.
The contract the McDonalds signed stated the solar panels would be up and running within six months of the sales date.
Eleven months later and with no change to their electricity bills, McDonald said they are frustrated.
“So we’ve got $30,000 invested that we are not getting any return at all,” McDonald said.
“It could have been drawing interest. We’ve always had electric bills ever since all this is going on. So yeah, we’re kind of perturbed.”
The McDonalds contacted the Iowa Attorney General’s Office three weeks ago with their complaint. They aren’t planning to pursue litigation at this time.
“It’s been a nightmare,” McDonald said. “We should have done the homework and looked at reviews.
“We’re not the only ones that have had problems.”
Some of the current complaints could be due to supply chain issues, according to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
The office still is in the process of investigating a variety of complaints. Reports range from improper installations and defective solar panels to property damage at the time of installation.
There are cases in which solar panel companies have failed to provide contracted services as a whole.
Clean.Tech is a solar panel company that’s now out of business, with 13 complaints under investigation.
“If a business does go out of business or declares bankruptcy, unfortunately the consumer is feeling like any creditor and is waiting in line for money,” Hicks said.
“But they certainly should bring a complaint to us and we will look into it.”
Because the investigation is ongoing, the Attorney General’s Office couldn’t provide a timeline of when the investigation will be complete.
“We are not saying that solar energy is a bad power source or is not a good alternative,” Hicks said.
“And we are not saying that all companies are engaged in this conduct, but we do just want to put out a warning that this is what we are receiving, this is what we are hearing.”
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.