How a sleazy and dishonest sales culture is threatening the solar industry

TIME Magazine recently published a piece on the way sleazy sales culture is infiltrating the solar industry across America. Because solar is an industry that isn’t heavily regulated and has no barrier to entry, there is plenty of room for people without any renewable energy experience to enter the fray. And while there are plenty of honest, ethical, and hardworking solar sales reps out there, a contingent of unethical (and sometimes criminal) reps threatens to tarnish the industry for everybody else. 

According to the Energy Information Association, the U.S. added 6.4 gigawatts of small-scale solar in 2022, the most ever in a single year. Tax credits, increasingly high electrical bills, and the promise of reducing one’s carbon footprint all make solar an attractive prospect. But it’s also an attractive prospect to people who can make thousands of dollars off one sale — people who have no idea how the technology actually works and who are willing to lie about it to close the deal. Because you don’t need a license or indeed any training to sell solar in most states, vast networks of independent contractors fan out and “blitz” neighborhoods with their pitches, conveniently ignoring Do Not Call lists and No Soliciting signs while targeting elderly and low-income consumers. 

These independent contractors negotiate a “red line” with the installers, or the base price at which they need to sell the solar system. If they can persuade homeowners to pay more, even twice as much, they pocket the difference, which can and does incentivize all sorts of unethical and even criminal behavior.

“Solar is ground zero for consumer fraud right now,” Andrew Milz, a consumer attorney based in Pennsylvania, told TIME. “The industry is just littered with bad actors trying to put solar on as many roofs as possible as fast as possible.” 

Here are some of the lies that these solar sales hucksters (who misleadingly call themselves “energy consultants”) use in their dishonest pitches:

1. You can get free solar panels from the government. (You can’t. You can only get tax credits that take maybe a third off of the price.) 

2. You can get off the electrical grid completely. (Without a solar battery, an expensive addition, you probably can’t.) 

3. The panels will only take a couple of weeks to install (unlikely). 

4. They work for the local utility (also unlikely). 

Many reps call themselves service providers, not solicitors, so they can ignore “No Soliciting” signs, and present themselves as saviors looking to take down the big bad utility companies. They also present solar as an alternative to having an energy bill, when in fact, the vast majority of homes with solar pay a utility bill too. They scare homeowners with claims that their energy bills will double in the next year (probably untrue) and act appalled when these homeowners tell them what they currently pay in energy usage, no matter what the number is. 

The consequences of these misleading sales are real. TIME discovered dozens of lawsuits filed by people who bought solar under pressure and with bad information they were given, whether they were lied to about the energy savings or the length of time to complete their installs.

But for now, solar sales, whether in its current or more ethical form, is here to stay. Every few years, there’s a new industry that blows up, attracting thousands of fly-by-night sellers looking to make some quick money without much thought about ethics, customers, or their own long-term prospects. For now, solar happens to be it. But, like all other industries with high rates of unethical or illegal behavior, it will either become regulated, or disrupted by something new. In the meantime, buyer beware.   

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