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‘Biggest financial mistake I’ve ever made’: Horry County residents grapple with bad solar panel deals

Published: Nov. 3, 2021 at 1:22 PM EDT
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CONWAY, S.C. (WMBF) - Cutting costs and saving the planet - with promises like these, many may wonder what’s not to love about incorporating solar power energy into their home.

And while there is frequently truth to these claims, some say misleading deals are being made. Some Horry County residents told WMBF Investigates that going solar has ranged from a headache to a nightmare.

“It’s a big expense to me and a lot of other people,” said Barbara Raven, a Socastee resident.

Raven said switching her power supply to solar sounded like a positive thing to do for the environment. And by how it was sold, it sounded like an investment that would pay off for itself, so she confirmed an appointment with a sales company that had come to her door.

Once her panels started working (which took months to get right even after they were initially installed on her roof), Raven said her electric bill has definitely reduced. But her new loan for the panels has not.

RELATED COVERAGE | Is solar power worth it? WMBF Investigates looks into utility company’s charges for solar customers

“The expense is astronomical. If you’re not really very young, you’re never going to see any benefit from it until you pay off the loan. And your loans can be upwards of $50,000,” Raven said.

According to a consumer protection attorney, Sid Connor, unsavory solar panel sales companies go after elderly people, something Raven said she’s heard of as well.

“If you have a $50,000 or more loan that you have to pay off and you’re 70 or 80 years old? That’s very unreasonable,” Raven said, who is retired herself. “And why they would pursue that? I don’t understand that. That’s predatory, in my opinion.”

Raven said there’s a “huge difference” between what the salesperson promised her versus what she has received, once going solar.

For example, she was under the impression she’d receive over $7,000 in the form of a rebate from her utility company, only to find that that was the maximum possible in general, and she ended up not qualifying for that amount. She said she was also under the impression she could receive a tax credit from the state and federal government. This did not come to fruition, she said because she doesn’t have any liability for taxes.

Should she have received these credits, like she said they were communicated to her, Raven would have been left with a $6,000 loan for the panels.

“That was very reasonable to me,” she explained, until finding that this would not be the case. “Not so. I’m stuck with a loan four times that. And not happy with it.”

Raven’s story holds similarities to that of several other solar panel customers WMBF Investigates spoke with.

Juanita McFarland, a retiree in Conway, said she never knew the cost upfront, even after spending several hours with a salesperson one day, going over materials that required some signatures.

“Every time I turn a page, I scan the page looking for numbers. There weren’t any,” McFarland said.

Finally, those numbers arrived in the form of a loan balance sent in the mail: a number for $48,500.

“I just about lost it. I had no idea. That’s the first time I’d seen any numbers,” she said.

Mike Bomgardner, a husband and father in Conway, said he was told he’d essentially have no electric bill and might even make more energy than he needed by going solar.

“From what I was being told, I couldn’t think of a reason why it’d be a bad idea,” Bomgardner explained.

But months later after having his panels installed, Bomgardner said the ideas sold to him haven’t panned out the way he thought they would.

He explained a salesperson told him he’d only have to pay $50 a month for the panels for the first 18 months.

In addition, an extra charge by his utility company to facilitate having the solar panels was unexpected, he said. This is something McFarland said she also encountered.

Bomgardner said he was told the solar panel company would pay for this charge, but again, only for 18 months. And he is now being told while going through the process of refinancing his home, that there isn’t enough information in the market to assess any added value to the house at this time.

“Almost every promise and everything that was a selling point in the beginning kind of did a 180. You know, they did make it right, cutting the check for the differences that they agreed to in the beginning; I just didn’t like the way it happened,” he said. “I’d rather just be getting a $50 bill, and not have to track money between separate accounts to make sure no additional money is being spent by them writing me a check.”

Bomgardner said it looks like he’s saving $75 a month on his electric bill, off of a $37,000 investment.

“I don’t think people would ever entertain the idea of solar if they knew any of this upfront,” he said. “This is the biggest financial mistake I’ve ever made.”

Connor is helping consumers, like McFarland and Raven, get out of deals like these based on the terms of the financing agreement.

“Everything is designed to really put up a smokescreen to the consumer,” Connor explained about how some of these deals are made. “They think they’re getting $150 payments when actually they’re going to be paying $300 a month. They think they’re going to save money when actually they don’t really save a whole lot of money. And at the end of the day, when they scratch their heads, they realize this isn’t gonna work. And it’s too late at that point.”

That’s why agencies and organizations like Solar United Neighbors, along with the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs, are working to empower more consumers to go green on their own terms.

Ben Delman, with Solar United Neighbors, said some of these sales techniques have been an unfortunate effect of the fact that the technology has become more popular in recent years.

“People really like the opportunity and the ability to take control of where the electricity comes from so that they’re not beholden solely to their utility for their electricity,” Delman explained. “I think, unfortunately, we’re sometimes seeing bad actors take advantage of that.”

Where’s the regulation?

Meanwhile, South Carolina regulation went into effect this summer, to help consumers make informed solar decisions.

“We’re hopeful that these new regulations and the new documents will really get consumers thinking and asking questions before they sign that dotted line,” Bailey Parker said, a spokesperson for South Carolina’s Department of Consumer Affairs.

According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, they include a waiting period for elderly consumers, where they can review a written copy of the contract for a least three days before signing, as well as a right to cancel a contract for all consumers within 10 days of signing it.

Sellers must now also give consumers a pamphlet detailing their rights and responsibilities, as well as a standard disclosure in the contract.

“This is not a light purchase. This is a huge life purchase,” Parker said. “And you need to shop around whether you’re over the age of 70, or under the age of 70.”

How to go solar, but empowered

Solar United Neighbors recommends the following:

  • Get at least three competing bids from solar power sales companies to help you secure the fairest deal.
  • Thoroughly research the business and its past performance before signing a contract.
  • Be prepared for a long-range investment.

“I think it’s important to understand that going solar is an investment,” Delman said. “It’s putting an investment of buying your electricity for the next 15 to 20, 25 years.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs advises you to look out for red flags, like the following:

  • “You’ll never have another utility bill!”
  • “You’ll automatically get a tax rebate from the government!”
  • “HOAs can’t tell you what to do.”

For help with going solar, Delman recommended South Carolinians get in contact with the state’s trade association. Solar United Neighbors also has a Help Desk where you can get in touch with a solar expert.

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