Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series asking the question: Is Solar Unsustainable? You can find Part One: Shoddy Work here, and Part Two: Shady Business Practices here.
It is easy enough to cast aspersions, but it is far more valuable to offer suggestions for improvement. Having devoted 3,000 words to the former, it is time offer some thoughts on the latter.
Too Big to Fulfill
I attended a solar workshop sponsored by our favorite distributor, BayWa r.e., and I heard the head of a solar company offer what might have been the saddest assessment of success I had ever heard.
This man had built his company to become the largest player in his region, but most of the time, he said, "I wish I could go back to being just two guys and a truck." Growth is hard, and with it comes the risk of shoddy work creeping into your projects.
(Indeed, one of the jobs that we highlighted in our first post was done by a company that once had a great reputation, but grew too fast and lost control of quality.)
When a company becomes too big to fulfill its obligation to provide top-quality work, it is too big.
A greater emphasis on training is one way to grow while still keeping the quality high. NABCEP is a good step in that direction, but companies need to support their employees to get the training that they need. (Of course, this says nothing about companies that are looking to rip people off - they represent an entirely different type of problem. More about dealing with them later.)
From Customers to Clients
Right now the solar industry treats consumers like customers, and that's a problem. Customers represent a transactional relationship - gas stations and fast food restaurants have customers. The customer hands over their money and gets a commodity in return - end of story. But purchasers of solar power systems are entering into a long-term relationship with the product that we are selling - quite likely the longest lived product they will ever own, short of the house itself. A relationship can only last that long when it is founded in trust, and that is the nature of a client relationship.
Recognizing that we are entering into a client relationship changes the focus from the short term transaction to the long-term process of building confidence. That means starting with absolute candor and at every step in the process enhancing the client's trust. The solar professional owes the client three duties: a duty of candor, a duty of communication, and a fiduciary duty. The consequence of those duties is that you have to keep your client in the loop, and you must safeguard your client's financial well-being.
How do you fulfill those duties? By communicating clearly at every step in the process, identifying and disclosing problems as they arise, and by providing comprehensive contracts and then living by that contract (i.e., keeping change orders to a minimum).
Time to Come Clean
Solar companies need to provide comprehensive disclosures to their clients. At a minimum, such disclosures should include:
- All of the major components (specific solar panels, inverters, racking) to be used on the project, and the per item cost of each;
- If financing is being proposed, the total cost of that financing;
- Savings calculations that are actually tied to the client's utility rate structure (or a structure to which the client is entitled to transition);
- All assumptions (such as utility rate increase percentage, system output degradation, etc.), built into any lifetime savings computation.
Such comprehensive disclosures would eliminate the scourge of "generic solar systems," and would allow consumers to make more accurate comparisons of competing bids.
Guiding the Market's 'Invisible Hand'
I spoke about many of these issues on a panel this week as SPI. There was a great deal of agreement among the panelists, despite our disparate backgrounds ranging from a (refreshingly progressive muni utility) to Sunrun to me. But the one comment that bothered me the most came from industry veteran and CALSEIA board member, Ed Murray. In response to my stated concern that the bad business practices documented in my first two posts in this series constituted a serious threat to the industry, Mr. Murray's response was that "the market will take care of it, bad companies will fail and the good ones will survive, hopefully without too much of a black eye to the industry."
If only it were that easy.
We rejected such laissez faire notions with the rise of the modern regulatory state decades ago, and to suggest that the solar industry can or should survive without additional regulatory involvement is misguided. The solar industry is far less regulated here in California than it is in many states. For example, to participate in the solar incentive program in New York solar installers must be NABCEP certified. Such a requirement here in the largest solar market in the country would go a long way toward cleaning up our act.
CALSEIA has a consumer complaint process - consumers who feel they've been badly treated by a solar company in California can start the process by clicking here to fill out their complaint form - but the process itself is secret, and the rest of the consuming public never learns about those complaints.
Similarly, utilities often have experience with bad solar contractors who do shoddy work, but they don't publicize what they have learned so the public remains uneducated about the bad actors out there. That should change.
Unfortunately, that leaves us, for now, in a position where the burden remains on the potential client to do the homework needed to find a reliable contractor. NABCEP's member list is a good resource (although made less so since you can no longer sort results by zip code), as is CALSEIA's. State contractor's boards - responsible for licensing contractors - are a good source to verify that the contractor is properly licensed, and to determine whether there are any outstanding complaints against them. (For California, here is a link to the "Check a License" page at the state contractors board.)
Yelp, Angie's List, and the BBB can all be helpful. But consumers must demand to be treated like the clients that they are, and reject solar companies that fail to honor that demand.