Author: Kayla Benjamin    Published: 2/27/2024  Washington Informer

Anytime someone rings your doorbell with a sales pitch, they should expect to be met with at least some level of healthy skepticism. That’s especially true if they’re selling something that involves potentially pricey upfront costs, complicated financing arrangements or long-term agreements. Rooftop solar panels often involve one or two of those.

The solar industry does have its share of bad actors. But there are also plenty of reputable solar businesses in the DMV that might send a sales rep to canvas in your neighborhood.

“Legit solar companies still do [door-to-door sales], especially if they’ve done an installation in the area recently — same way as real estate agents operate,” said James Clarke, portfolio manager for the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility’s Solar for All program.

Moreover, Clarke said, solar energy technology has gotten far more efficient in recent decades, which means rooftop panels have become a good fit for a lot more homes and families’ budgets.

“An installation now can provide, based on the number of panels and the square footage of the roof, well over five kilowatts of power; the average home is using around 3.5 kilowatts,” he said. “So in general, because of the higher efficiency, you’re gonna see savings.”

So how can D.C.-area households — many of which could save big on electric bills with solar — tell the difference between a solid deal and a scam? The Informer spoke with Clarke and DCSEU Managing Director Ernest Jolly about the information homeowners should keep in mind.

Solar Finance Basics

The first piece of advice Jolly offered is something that goes for nearly any big purchase or financial agreement: make sure all the details are in writing, and read carefully before signing.

“What you can depend on is what can be enforced,” Jolly said. “Therefore, what is finally reduced to writing in a contract that homeowners or renters are asked to sign is what you can believe in.”

But reading over any contract about solar panel installation can be daunting and confusing. Understanding a few key terms can help with getting started.

  • Third-party solar ownership: When a company owns the solar panels, not the homeowner. This can be a good option for households that want to save money on electricity bills but can’t afford a major upfront cost to buy the panels directly, or don’t want to be responsible for maintenance of the panels. There are two common arrangements for third-party solar ownership:
    • Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA): The homeowner pays a third-party owner for the electricity produced by the panels on their roof. This works because the homeowner pays a lower rate than they’d pay the regular power utility.
    • Solar lease: The homeowner pays a third-party solar owner a set monthly amount regardless of the amount of energy used. Again, this works when the panels produce enough energy that the household saves more on electricity bills than they pay for the lease each month.
  • Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs): A credit that represents the environmental value of emissions-free energy produced. Whoever owns the solar panels earns one SREC for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) the panels produce. The dollar value of an SREC differs depending on where you live, and it can change dramatically over time. (D.C. has far and away the best market for SRECs in the country, with each credit being worth over $400 as of February 2024. In Maryland, they’re worth just under $60, and in Virginia around $30.)
  • Solar loan: Like a loan for any major home improvement project. Homeowners who want to own the solar panels installed on their roof but can’t afford the whole cost upfront can apply for a loan to pay for the panels over time, with interest.

What to Ask Someone Selling Solar

Both Jolly and Clarke recommended homeowners double check any salesperson’s credentials by searching online for the company or agency they say they’re from and calling the number on the website. That’s not just true for solar: Clarke, who previously worked at DC Water, said that scammers pretending to be from utility companies occasionally pop up across industries.

“I would always encourage people not to feel that it is inappropriate to ask for validation — and you don’t have to apologize,” Jolly said. “Give yourself emotional permission to do it. You’re being strong when you do that; you’re exercising your power when you do that.”

Jolly also recommends homeowners take their time deciding. Any sales pitch involving a time-sensitive deal or tight deadline is a big red flag.

Finally, homeowners can look to see if a solar company is on the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment’s list of approved solar installers or check whether they have been vetted by the renewable energy marketplace Energy Sage. (See below for more resources for trustworthy information.)

But just because a company is real doesn’t mean their product or plan is right for you. Here are a few questions to ask upfront:

  • Under this plan, who owns the solar panels and receives the SRECs and tax incentives?
  • Who would be responsible for maintaining the panels?
  • What brand of solar panels and batteries would be used? (Clarke suggests later looking up the brands they mention.)
  • If it’s a third-party ownership plan, what happens at the end of the lease or contract term? Can the homeowner buy the panels at the end of the agreement?
  • What happens with the panels if the house is sold to someone new?

Clarke also recommended some other steps for potential buyers to “do their due diligence,” including comparing prices by “getting multiple quotes, vetting multiple installers, and asking around about who’s worked with them before, what projects they’ve done.”

Trustworthy Resources for the Deeper Questions

There is an enormous amount of information online about rooftop solar. For most people, it’s overwhelming, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell which sites are trying to sell something. These three sources are solid. (As a bonus: the last two offer free opportunities to speak with experts and ask your questions to a real, live person.)

  • EnergySage Marketplace: This is a for-profit company, but it operates kind of like a “Consumer Reports” for solar. You can look at ratings for solar installers, see which ones have been independently vetted by EnergySage, and get cost estimates. The website also has a lot of great explainers about all aspects of household renewable energy, including a great 15-minute guide to solar panels.
  • Solar United Neighbors: This nonprofit began in D.C. as a solar co-op, a big group of neighbors who all agreed to get solar at the same time so that they could negotiate a better deal. SUN now helps facilitate solar co-ops in D.C. and around the country, as well as providing lots of informational guides. Three other free services SUN offers:
    • 15-minute phone consultations with a solar expert
    • Feedback on a solar installer’s proposal
    • Review of your home’s roof to see if it would be a good fit for panels

D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU): This organization is overseen by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. On the website or by phone, the DCSEU team can help District residents find out if they are eligible for Solar for All or other government programs and services (these include limited funds for roof repairs or electrical work to accommodate solar installations). They can also provide unbiased answers to questions about rooftop solar proposals.