Sunburned: Solar industry faces complaints over hard-sell tactics

A Newsday/News 12 investigation found that the solar industry is facing many complaints about aggressive hard-sell tactics, unexpected costs and questionable installations.
Mort and Marilyn Kinzelberg, of Commack, figured they had two good reasons for putting solar panels on their roof: helping the environment and the promise of saving money on their electric bill.
The couple signed a 20-year, no money down lease deal with SolarCity – a firm run by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk. The Kinzelbergs say the company estimated they could save $1,000 a year, even though a giant tree in their backyard shades their roof like an umbrella.
“I told them I was concerned about the tree and they said not to worry,” said Mort Kinzelberg, 88. “Obviously they weren’t telling me the truth because I was very disappointed in my billings.”
With the tree blocking the sun, they barely made a dent in their electric bill. Meanwhile, under their contract with SolarCity, the cost of leasing the solar panels goes up 3 percent each year for the next 20 years.
“In winter time, when the days are short, it’s costing me more money than it used to cost me,” said Mort.
Solar critic Daniel Stevens says hard-sell tactics have caused a sharp rise in complaints all over the country.
“They’ll publish advertisements that say, ‘Your electricity bill is going to go down’ or ‘No cost to you,’” says Stevens. “And often…the individual will wind up being charged more for their electric costs than they were before they installed solar panels.”
Many unhappy customers are seniors, such as Edward Maccone, of North Bellmore. He wound up paying about $25 a month more than he did before getting solar panels.
“I was disappointed. When the figures started coming in on my utility bill, I wasn’t saving money as they proposed. I was spending more,” he said.
On Long Island, solar companies generally aren’t regulated by government, nor are they answerable to PSEG Long Island.
Michael Voltz, of PSEG, says “customers have to be careful.”
“We advise them to get multiple bids from multiple contractors, and make sure that they enter into a lease that has terms that they can live with, if they choose to lease,” said Voltz.
After seeing a big drop-off in customer sign-ups, solar industry officials are taking steps to improve their image – setting up a private system to review customer complaints.
Sean Gallagher, of the Solar Industries Association, told News 12 that “we want to make sure that everything is transparent and that the customer is getting what the customer expects.”
But the Kinzelbergs say what they were expecting was a good deal, not getting burned for the next 20 years.  
“I’m 88 years old. I’m not going to worry about 20 years from now.  My children will worry about it,” said Mort Kinzelberg. “I don’t like to admit my shortcomings, but I believe I was taken advantage of.”
Tesla’s Solar City declined to be interviewed for this story. Consumers concerned about solar deals can check with the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general.