For the longest time we have been talking about the need for the solar industry to do a better job of policing itself, because the manner in which too many solar companies were doing business was simply unsustainable. We argued that if we didn't do a better job, others would step in and do it for us.
Well guess what, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has just published a 23-page tome titled, California Solar Consumer Protection Guide. Now that is quite a mouthful, but come September 30th, every contract in California that is entered into for solar with one of the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) -- that is, SCE, PG&E, and SDG&E -- requires that the first four pages be initialed, the last page signed, and the whole thing uploaded to the IOU's web portal! Moreover, homeowners need to be given adequate time (and patience?) to read the entire document and only wet signatures (i.e., no E-sign) are allowed. Here's our take...
Who Will this Deter?
First and foremost, the more information consumers have, the less likely they will be taken in by shady contractors. Ultimately, that is good for both consumers and the legitimate players in the solar industry. Frankly it's too bad that the trade associations didn't create something like this and require their members to disseminate it to potential clients -- I'm confident that they would have produced a better guide.
For Run on Sun, this really doesn't change anything that we will be doing since we have always covered this type of information with our clients. (You know, we are "tellers, not sellers.") But it will be really interesting to see how the bad players respond. My guess is that they will simple forge signatures -- if you are willing to deceive your customer, you will have no qualms about deceiving a bunch of regulators.
Meanwhile, for the Non-Shady Solar Installers...
As to the rest of us, while this will mostly be business as usual, there are some disturbing things.
For example, on page 8, where the CPUC is trying to explain the installation process, they have this bullet point under the heading, After You Sign a Contract: "Installer... performs a home site visit to confirm assumptions and check roof, ground, and electric conditions." Hold the phone. If the installer doesn't know the condition of your roof and electrical service when you sign the contract, that contract is invalid!
Key terms that are left to a later time means that there was no agreement between the parties, no "meeting of the minds," and hence the contract is not binding. So why is the CPUC publishing such nonsense? Because many of the larger solar companies operate this way and they were no doubt insisting that this language be included.
But no - before you sign a contract, those assumptions have to be nailed down if you are to avoid costly change orders down the road. (Oh, and why aren't change orders discussed here? Sigh.)
Under Step 3: Find a Qualified Solar Provider they suggest going to the Contractors State License Board and the California DGStats website. But that's a lousy way to identify a qualified provider. For one thing, being listed with the CSLB just means you have a license - but lots of companies play all kinds of tricks to have a license number and you wouldn't want them anywhere near your home. And the DGStats site is interesting, but it only shows projects installed in the IOUs territory - locally that means SCE. But installs done in Pasadena or Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, Azusa, or Anaheim (for example) will not show up there at all, since the municipal utilities do not report their projects to that site.
Only under the area of narrowing down your list do they suggest checking the website of certified PV installation professionals provided by the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP) -- which is the only resource listed that actually does anything to qualify installers! (Check out the NABCEP list here.) Oddly, the directory of companies belonging to the California Solar and Storage association (calssa.org) was not referenced as a resource at all!
Under Step 5: Learn About Electricity Bill Savings they have this interesting statement: "Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: if the savings end up being lower than the estimated monthly or yearly savings, does getting rooftop solar still make sense to me?" Wow - how much did the IOUs have to pay to get that language inserted? How about adding this in rebuttal: "Before you sign a contract, ask yourself: How much would it mean to me to be able to really stick it to my utility?" Because we have certainly had many a client tell us that all they really want to do is make SCE feel the pain!
Wouldn't more useful questions to ask before you sign the contract be: How did your installer calculate your potential savings? What assumptions did they make, for example,about the rate of growth for future electric bills, or the degradation of the output of your PV system? What software did they use and how does it work? Or did they just pull a number out of the ether?
Under Step 8: Sign this Guide we get to explain to our new client why they have to initial 4 pages, check three boxes, and then sign the Guide - in addition to the installer's contract and the interconnection agreement. (To say nothing of financing documents if they are foolish enough to buy into a Lease/PPA). Yet more hoops to jump through before Going Solar.
But you know what, folks? We have only ourselves to blame.