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That deal on solar panels could be a scam, warns Idaho Attorney General

As winter’s gray skies give way to sunshine, some Idaho homeowners will harness those rays — looking for a way to cut utility bills and reduce their use of non-renewable energy.

But consumers should be wary of claims that seem too good to be true, says Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

“There are some very reputable solar companies doing business here in Idaho, but some installers aren’t always 100% honest in their representations to customers. My goal is to shed some light on the issue to make sure Idahoans are prepared and protected in the marketplace,” Wasden said in a consumer alert issued last month.

The Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division has continued to receive complaints about “solar companies’ misleading sales tactics through door-to-door sales and social media advertisements,” the alert said.

Idaho Power, the largest electric utility in the state, also said this month that its customers report “misleading statements by some companies selling residential solar systems.”

Idahoans have filed a number of complaints with Wasden’s consumer protection division in recent years, claiming that solar energy vendors promised financial rewards that never materialized.

“There’s been a bit of a lull during the winter months, but it’s likely we’ll hear from more consumers as the weather warms,” said Scott Graf, spokesperson for the Idaho attorney general.

Most of Idaho’s electricity comes from renewable sources. But solar power is a small slice of that; hydropower is Idaho’s main source of renewable energy.

Nearly 93,000 homes in Idaho are powered by solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The SEIA’s data shows a slow, steady rise in residential solar energy in the past five years, and the association predicts the growth to continue.

Consumers complained, Utah company agreed to train sales reps

The attorney general’s office provided the Idaho Capital Sun a spreadsheet of 16 complaints filed in the past year against nine different companies.

Five of the complaints were against a Utah-based company, Blue Raven Solar.

“Speaking generally, Blue Raven Solar is fully supportive of the Attorney General’s efforts to educate consumers about best practices for hiring a solar contractor,” Blue Raven’s vice president and general counsel wrote in an email to the Sun this month. “Along with Idaho’s utility providers, solar contractors like Blue Raven Solar are trusted with educating homeowners about the accessibility, affordability, and availability of residential rooftop solar. As the state’s largest residential solar contractor, we fully embrace this responsibility.”

The company had already attracted the attorney general’s scrutiny for complaints about its sales representatives.

According to public records, Wasden’s office opened an investigation into Blue Raven in spring 2020. The company in October 2020 signed a voluntary agreement that expires Dec. 31, 2025. Blue Raven denied allegations that it violated any laws but sought to resolve the AG’s concerns, the agreement said.

The AG’s office alleged it had received six complaints about Blue Raven Solar’s business practices since August 2018, including an aggregate complaint from Idaho Power, made up of 12 customer complaints Idaho Power had received between September 2018 and February 2019.

According to the agreement document, Blue Raven Solar cooperated fully with the AG’s office and provided information and records to investigators.

“The Attorney General’s investigation revealed that Blue Raven Solar’s previous training materials included sales methods that, when implemented by the company’s representatives in Idaho, (could) mislead or confuse consumers …” the document said. “Blue Raven Solar discontinued any use of these training materials in March 2020.”

The company agreed to:

  • refrain from using the sales or advertising methods that could mislead or confuse Idaho consumers.
  • comply with Idaho’s Residential Solar Energy System Disclosure Act.
  • not claim to be working with a utility company, unless it had the utility’s permission in writing.
  • not claim that Idaho “is running out of energy resources, lacks renewable energy resources, or must purchase the bulk of its energy from out-of-state,” unless Blue Raven Solar has written proof from an Idaho public utility, the state or U.S. energy authorities.
  • not tell consumers they will get rebates, tax breaks or payments unless the company has written proof.
  • develop a “comprehensive, in-person training program” for certain representatives, by April 2021. The training would cover, among other things, “acceptable and unacceptable consumer practices,” the agreement said.

Finally, the company agreed to pay the AG’s office $7,500 for legal and investigative costs.

But, over the next 12 months, a handful of consumers filed complaints to the AG’s office.

“The complainant purchased solar panels from this company and was told that they would not have to pay another power bill,” the record of a January 2021 complaint said. “She would like our office to help her with this situation because she was lied to and the panels don’t produce like she was told that they would.”

Another Idaho consumer said in April 2021 that “a door to door solicitor from this business (was) trying to sell solar panels. He tried to say he was working with Idaho Power. She would like our office to warn others about this business’s practices.”

A consumer in January 2022 said the business “misrepresented the amount of electricity that the complainant’s solar panels would produce,” the record said. “They also falsely claimed that she would receive a tax credit to help pay for the cost of the panels.”

Blue Raven sold to another company — Silicon Valley firm SunPower — in October 2021, a year after the agreement was signed.

“Since its founding in 2014, Blue Raven has built a profitable and high-growth business … with a direct-to-consumer sales and installation model,” SunPower said in a news release announcing the acquisition.

A report produced by SunPower noted Blue Raven’s high customer satisfaction ratings. The company’s Better Business Bureau profile has a rating of 4.3 out of 5, based on 599 customer reviews.

Blue Raven Solar has been registered as a contractor in Idaho since March 2018, without any disciplinary actions. Its latest registration expired March 14. Blue Raven Solar’s electrical contractor license since April 2017; it expires at the end of next month. The Sun was unable to find a license or registration for SunPower.

What can you do about scams?

Before signing a contract or paying for goods and services:

  • Check whether the business or professional is properly licensed or registered. You can quickly verify a license or registration through the Idaho Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, at dopl.idaho.gov/licensing. For licenses related to services like banking and finance or insurance, visit the website for the Idaho department that regulates the industry.
  • Check reviews on various websites — the Better Business Bureau, Google, Yelp and social media websites like Facebook and NextDoor.
  • Shop around. Get bids from other businesses.
  • For solar energy systems, the business or salesperson must provide you with disclosures required under Idaho state law. The disclosures must include the licensing information. They must also include a “written estimate of the savings the potential consumer is projected to realize from the system,” and describe the assumptions used to calculate that estimate. For example, did the estimate assume the consumer would be eligible for tax credits? Did it factor in costs to replace equipment?

If you believe you were the victim of a scam:

  • You can contact the Idaho Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division to file a consumer complaint, or file it online at ag.idaho.gov.
  • You can lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org. The BBB is not a government agency and has no legal authority to enforce laws, but it can help to informally resolve complaints.

— Audrey Dutton reports for the Idaho Capital Sun. This article was originally published on idahocapitalsun.com.

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