Group looks to protect solar consumers

By Ben Delman on October 11, 2016

The rapid growth of the rooftop solar industry has enabled more people to take control of where their energy comes from. It is critical that maintaining this growth doesn’t come at the expense of the customers solar is supposed to benefit. This is why the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) has developed a series of materials designed to help solar consumers make smart choices about their installation.
The organization developed them in response to what it saw as confusion from consumers about the many issues surrounding solar. It found that often consumers didn’t know the right questions to ask, let alone know the answers. In August, the organization rolled out its Clean Energy Consumer Bill of Rights and its Be Solar Smart Consumer Checklist. The checklist developed from the Bill of Rights as IREC consulted with stakeholders in the Bill of Rights’ development.

“IREC has historically worked in the regulatory arena to create policies that allow consumers to connect renewable energy systems to the grid and be treated fairly by utility companies,” said Larry Sherwood, IREC’s President and CEO. “We really see this new initiative on consumer education to be an extension of the work we’ve long done to help consumers in the renewable energy space.

Sherwood cited three broad areas of knowledge consumers need before they go solar that are described in the checklist.

The first is whether or not their home is good for solar. This includes the quality of their roof as well as the amount of annual sunlight it receives. The second is knowledge about how the consumer will pay for the system. Will they purchase it or lease it? What are the costs and benefits to both? Lastly, consumers should know what the process and fees are for connecting their system to the electric grid.

While the checklist is targeted to potential solar customers, the Bill of Rights is a policy document. It outlines the rights that consumers should have with respect to the industry, installers, and utilities. The Bill of Rights contains many elements one might expect, such as pricing transparency and honoring warranties. It also clearly instructs installers to ensure their customers are educated about Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

RECs are the ‘green’ value of the electricity generated by solar. They can generate thousands of dollars in value for their owner over the life of the system. Consumers who purchase their system can make use of these credits. Consumers who lease their systems cannot. The Bill of Rights says that installers should make it clear if and how the consumer can use RECs.

On the utility side, the Bill of Rights calls on utilities to provide customers with “full and fair market value” for the electricity they generate and that consumers should “not be burdened with unfair or unreasonable charges”. This has become a major roadblock in many places, as utilities have looked to impose fees on solar customers as a way of discouraging them from going solar.

IREC is working with Consumer Reports to distribute these tools. It is hopeful the checklist will be widely circulated and that it will become a document that every solar installer and salesperson gives to customers to keep them informed.

“We hear it from different regulatory commissions, state energy offices, state government: consumer protection is their biggest issue (regarding solar),” Sherwood said. “It’s an important area to get right if we want the industry to grow.”