Solar Energy: A Buyer's Guide

Solar Energy: A Buyer's Guide

In 2014, the solar industry installed 40 percent more physical generation sources than it had in the previous year. Today, in many states, consumers are producing their own energy at home through rooftop solar panels and selling the excess back to the power company, essentially changing the grid from a one-way street to a two-way power highway.

As these technologies become more widespread, we must ensure that consumers have accurate information and are protected from deceptive practices and bad actors. Electricity is ubiquitous, but that doesn't mean we all know where it comes from, how it enters our homes, how it's paid for, or the steps taken to ensure customer protection and safety.

As a first step toward addressing this problem, the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center has published a great new guide for those considering solar, to which I contributed. It contains exactly the type of education consumers, regulators, legislators, advocates, and solar industry stakeholders need.

Like any major financial commitment, the decision to go solar should not be made lightly. To begin with, consumers need to figure out if they have a rooftop location and climate appropriate for generating power. Then, they need to decide whether they want a system large enough to provide electricity for their entire home, determine whether they have the finances to outright purchase the system, and, if not, understand what third-party financing options are available to them. With some leases, payments continue at the same rate through the duration of the typical 20-year term; with others, payments might increase 2 to 5 percent each year. There are also many tax credits available.

Further, consumers need to know when (and if) their costs will be recouped during the term of the lease -- and understand how any electricity-bill savings are calculated by their solar provider. Solar panels do not necessarily place a home "off the grid," as traditional electricity may still be needed on cloudy days and during evening hours.

Other challenges homeowners might face include local ordinances or homeowners'-association rules that restrict solar panels to maintain an established aesthetic standard. Also, consumers leasing solar panels need to understand the required maintenance (e.g., tree trimming, cleaning), what happens at the end of their lease term (e.g., buy the panels, continue the lease, panel removal), and what is necessary for them to sell their home (e.g., buy out the lease term, have the buyer assume the lease if they have a high enough credit score to do so, move the panels to the new home if staying in the same utility service area).

Several states, including Arizona, Iowa, and Louisiana, are examining consumer-protection options to ensure rooftop-solar companies are transparent with their customers. For example, in response to an elderly couple's complaint of being locked into a 20-year solar lease and being unable to sell their home after moving into assisted living, Arizona state senator Debbie Lesko recently introduced legislation that would require companies to disclose the total price and full costs of rooftop solar panels.

Through consumer education -- and, if necessary, consumer-protection law -- we need to ensure that consumers have the facts they need to make effective decisions about solar energy. That is the best route toward an inclusive, renewable energy future.

Sheri Givens is the former executive director of the Texas Office of Public Utility Counsel, the state's consumer advocate for residential and small business electricity consumers.

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