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Down the Solar Rabbit Hole

06/27/16

  04:03:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1072 words  
Categories: Residential Solar, Ranting

Down the Solar Rabbit Hole

We recently wrote about the perils of click-bait, solar lead generation sites in our post, Researching Solar? Careful Where You Click!  Over the weekend it became clear to me just how pernicious this can be.

While wasting part of my Sunday morning on Facebook, I came across an ad from something calling itself The Solar Institute which was making the claim that “California Approves Program to Help Middle-Class Families Make the Switch to Solar at No Cost".  Wow, that was news to me, but gee maybe The Solar Institute - a name that seemed awfully familiar - knew something I didn’t.  I had better check this out. 
And down the rabbit hole I went…

Things are not as they seem…

The Solar Institute's deceptive webpage

Screen grab from http://thesolarinstitute.org/real-stimulus-for-middle-class/ - Visited 6/26/2016


First and foremost, it is important to point out that the image to the left is not the website for The Solar Living Institute which is entirely legit, and which helps train solar professionals.  But it certainly seems that the attempted name confusion is entirely intended.

No, this is quite the clever site - notice that they managed to slip in an Elon Musk quote to borrow some of that special magic.  It starts by claiming that it will cost you $32,000 to install solar which overstates the initial expenditure by about 100%  on an average 4 kW project (to say nothing of the fact that you then get 30% of that cost back in the form of the Federal tax incentive).

But then it gets to the point: “A novel initiative is, however, looking to change that."  Wow, really?  This must be the program that California “approved,” right?  So what is this incredibly novel initiative?

From the website:

Alternative Energy Solar Project has been made promotional manager over the Middle Class Affordable Solar Homes (M-CASH US) project, one of the country’s first dedicated solar repayment system for middle class families. The goal is to install solar arrays to over 32,000 homes by the end of 2016…

The state government in  California has talked about how they can contribute through raising money to be able to provide more rebates. In the attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and move toward installing solar arrays. In total, the solar program has totted up to an impressive movement.

By ploughing at least 30% of the money from government incentives and using private investors to back the solar installation, the project aims to kill two birds with one stone – saving Middle-Class families money, while also making big fossil fuel polluting companies help to cut energy emissions in the state even further.

Anyone who is currently living in a neighborhood in California that is classed as middle-class is qualified to apply to get the arrays installed. The sun sets on the initiative as the year ends in 2016, so if you’re living in the state, you might want to jump on board soon.

Indeed, better jump right on board.  They sure make it sound official, what with references to the “state government in California” and all, but who are these people?  The website says nothing about who they are and their contact information gives only an 855 number but no address, or license number or anything else.  (Doing a whois on the domain name is equally fruitless.) Calling that number gets you to something identified as “Free Solar Quotes” - a lead gen website.

But since it identified Alternative Energy Solar Project as the “promotional manager” for this “M-CASH” program we decided to Google them, going farther down the hole…

Now isn’t that special?

Turns out that wasn’t as easy as we expected, though we did find a Reddit asking whether the company was a scam (and concluding it was, after determining that the photo of the alleged CEO was, in fact, a stock photo!)  Ultimately we found their website - but no more CEO photos, or any info about who they are, which is odd for a government-ordained program.  In fact, the home page is nothing more than a sign-up page, but some additional sleuthing led us to some landing pages within the site.  There we came across this:

m-cash-ca program text

Screen grab from: http://aesproject.org/index.php/m-cash-ca/ - Visited: 6/27/2016.

There is some sly stuff going on here.  Perhaps my personal favorite is the reference to the Private Utilities Commission - cause, that’s a thing.  Or how about “…helps connect companies who have set aside private funds raised for the California Solar Initiative be set aside for programs assisting middle-class households in accessing solar technology."  I have no idea what that word salad is supposed to mean, other than to somehow try to associate this scammy offering with the California Solar Initiative (which went out of business in 2014)

So yeah, lucky us, California, this great program has made it “all the way to California” - now don’t you feel special?  Well maybe not so special, since we then found this:

m-cash-njprogram text

Screen grab from: http://aesproject.org/index.php/m-cash-nj/ - Visited: 6/27/2016.

What do you know, this exact same program made it “all the way to New Jersey” from Maryland, too!  (Though Delaware just isn’t very big there - with apologies to Delawarians everywhere.) In fact, for sport you can replace the -ca or -nj with other state postal abbreviations to see what other poor states are being targeted by this scam!

So what, at the end of the day, is this all about?  Leases.  Yeah.  All this nonsense alluding to state-sponsored programs is nothing more than lead-gen gymnastics to lure in consumers and stick them with a lease (or PPA).

These are the sorts of deceptive business practices that are giving the solar industry such a black eye, and one can only hope that the FTC and state AG’s are paying attention.  But we in the industry have an obligation to shut this sort of thing down.  If you purchase leads you need to know how those leads are generated and not support lead generators who are engaged in these sorts of practices.  Make no mistake - these lead-gen operators are making money because solar companies are buying what they are selling!  We can help ensure consumers are better served simply by refusing to participate - or we can wait for the regulators to step in and make all of our lives more difficult.

For the record, there are legit entities trying to connect solar customers with reputable solar installers, with everyone from NABCEP to Sunmetrix, to even this fellow in Australia.  But we need to make sure that the scammers aren’t carrying the day, and we do that by refusing to participate.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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