Out-of-state Solar Profiteers May Be Wolves in Sheeps’ Clothing

When we see wolves coming to attack the sheep, we have a responsibility to sound the alarm. For months, out-of-state-interests have been targeting our communities with Facebook ads and now TV commercials designed to capture the attention and wallets of people in our communities who may not realize what they are being sold is too good to be true. People have been harmed by these schemes across the country, and we need to call them out here before Michiganders get hurt.

Don’t be deceived when you see ads that claim “Michigan Launches Its No-Cost Solar Program” or “Free Solar Panels for Middle Class Families.” It’s just a sales scheme that comes with too many false promises, and Michigan is only their latest target market.

The Detroit Association of Black Organizations is dedicated to educating and empowering the communities we serve – and clean, affordable, reliable energy is fundamental to helping every community thrive. But how we achieve that matters. It’s important that we understand the motives, business model, and track records of the business interests that are peddling these schemes and not just sign on the dotted line at the mere promise of saving on our energy bills.

Their motives are clear: they recognize a good money-making opportunity when they see one. Michigan’s energy system is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Our state is retiring older, coal-fired power plants and replacing that energy with cleaner sources like natural gas and renewables. If fact, Michigan’s two major utilities have announced massive investments in wind and solar energy, which has gotten the attention of out-of-state solar developers looking to capture market share and thus profits.

Their business model is the greater concern. Solar developers from places like North Carolina are using ads that collect potential customer leads from information individuals may share through online forms. One ad (geared toward luring some of Michigan’s local solar installers) actually referenced a “never ending supply of customers” and another said “sold 5 deals in the first month – and went on vacation.” These ads are the sheep’s clothing behind which the wolves are hiding, and they are targeting middle and low-income communities in an effort to lock unsuspecting homeowners into long-term contracts for rooftop solar panels before those homeowners fully understand the hidden costs of what they’re signing up for.

Private rooftop solar panels typically cost $20,000 – $30,000 to purchase and install. However, they may also be financed, much like buying a car or a home. That means there can be “zero cost” up front, but homeowners will still end up paying the bill eventually—and with interest the tab adds up quickly. These deals lock homeowners into contracts that can last decades, with some folks offering up their home as initial collateral.

The promise on lowering energy bills is also suspect. A simple Google search of customer reviews produces example after example of how overzealous salespeople overstate the savings. Out-of-state solar developers don’t have to worry about that, though, because

their profits are tied to tax credits and other incentives offered by the federal government. The more they sell, they more they collect, regardless of whether customers actually see the ROI they’ve been promised. No wonder these profiteers can offer $0 out-of-pocket deals.

States across the country are realizing this fact too late. The list of Attorneys General that felt compelled to take action against predatory rooftop solar developers is piling up, including New Mexico, Mississippi, and Massachusetts.

Michigan’s already enjoying a transformation to cleaner energy—an inclusive, cost-effective transformation that will serve every household and every business long term. Let’s stay the course on that journey together and not listen to the voices that would lure us down a different road lined with false promises and inequity.

Rev. Horace Sheffield is Executive Director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations.

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