Interesting products are selling. So I’ve always been weird that some companies selling solar power systems resorted to the most devious sales practices imaginable – telemarketing, robocalls, hyper-aggressive salespeople.
Solar power is a good thing. It is part of the solution to climate change.
However, some players in this industry go out of their way to prove to be unsavory. The other day, a solar salesman I met while walking my dog did not accept a response, trying three times to stop me and hear his speech.
But the following story really takes the cake.
Brigid de Jong’s mother-in-law, Ruby, died in late October at the age of 91. De Jong’s husband stopped by his mother’s house near Fresno about a week later to put things in order. It was then that he noticed that solar panels had been installed on the roof.
The job had clearly been done recently. The system was not even connected yet.
“We spoke with her every day before her death,” De Jong, 67, told me. “She never mentioned having solar.”
She and her husband took a look at things and discovered a contract that Ruby apparently signed online in September.
“It was weird because she wasn’t a computer expert at all,” De Jong said. “And the email address on the contract wasn’t hers. It was a Gmail account. She had an AT&T email address.”
De Jong contacted solar company Vivint Solar, which was acquired by Sunrun from San Francisco last October. She explained the situation and demanded that the contract be canceled and that Vivint remove her equipment from the house.
It was five months ago. Since then, Vivint has given De Jong the trick and repeatedly asked her if she was planning to sell the house to someone who might be interested in solar power.
“It is absurd that installing the solar panels was only a matter of a few weeks, but removing them takes months and months,” an exasperated De Jong emailed the company.
Vivint eventually informed her that the company’s “review board” had determined that “we are not in a position to proceed with the cancellation of the contract.”
Let’s be very clear on what that meant. Vivint sold a 25-year contract to a 91-year-old woman. And then, after the woman died a few weeks later, the company said it would not leave her as a customer and would not remove the solar panels.
My best guess is that Vivint hoped the family of a deceased client could pay off their contract, even though the family had no obligation to do so. Or maybe the company was hoping it could impose its signs on whoever bought the house.
Vivint (now Sunrun) is no stranger to customer dissatisfaction. A 2017 report by the Campaign for Accountability found that more than half of all complaints about solar companies received by the Federal Trade Commission involved Vivint and its rival SolarCity.
“Among other things,” the report notes, “consumers reported poor customer service and being tricked into purchasing solar panels.”
The monitoring group urged the FTC last year investigate the “false and deceptive marketing practices” of solar companies during the pandemic, particularly cases involving the elderly.
He said the crackdown on solar companies “is all the more urgent” in light of Sunrun’s acquisition of Vivint. Both companies, he said, “have a history of deceptive marketing.”
Vivint’s 25-year contract with De Jong’s mother-in-law stated that she would pay Vivint 18.5 cents per kilowatt hour for all the energy produced by the solar panels on her roof, with her rate increasing by 3% each year. .
Is it worth it? No, it turns out. Not even close.
According to PG&E, the utility serving Ruby’s home, the average cost of electricity for the company’s customers as of March 31 was 28.3 cents per kilowatt hour.
However, De Jong said his mother-in-law was enrolled in Alternative Energy Tariffs in California, a state program that offers low-income people monthly rebates of up to 35% on their utility bills.
PG&E told me that the average cost of electricity for its CARE customers is 17.7 cents per kilowatt hour.
Not only is that lower than the 18.5 cents cited by Vivint, but the company’s annual 3% rate hikes ensure that its price would consistently exceed what a CARE member would have to pay.
“PG&E believes it’s more important than ever for customers to know the right things to ask for and look for when considering solar power,” said Ari Vanrenen, utility spokesperson.
She encouraged all energy consumers to consult the California Public Utilities Commission Solar consumer protection guide.
Either way, I’m happy to say that shortly after contacting Sunrun about all of this, a company executive phoned De Jong to tell him the contract would be canceled.
“They made it look like they were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” De Jong said.
Wyatt Semanek, a spokesperson for Sunrun, told me much the same.
“Our human-centered philosophy has prompted us to take another look at this case, which came to us as part of Sunrun’s acquisition of Vivint Solar,” he said.
“Given the unique set of circumstances, Sunrun has determined that this account warrants a complete cancellation of the system.”
Despite Sunrun’s human-centered philosophy, the company has left many questions unanswered.
Why was an unknown email address on the contract? Why did it take months to fix this problem? What did Sunrun hope to gain by forcing a deceased person to meet their contractual obligation to purchase overpriced electricity?
Semanek did not respond directly to any of these questions. “This isolated case is the result of human error,” he said without giving details.
“When Sunrun reviewed Ms. De Jong’s case, we recognized mistakes that had been previously ignored and quickly decided to engage with her family and cancel the existing contract,” he said.
I suspect most of us would agree that explicitly refusing to cancel the contract for five months hardly counts as “promptly”.
Sunrun then told De Jong that she could keep the solar panels on the house for free. Semanek acknowledged that any buyer of the home would then have to contract Sunrun for solar service.
De Jong told me that she was glad to have this mess behind her. “I still can’t believe it happened,” she said.
I’ll conclude by making the same point I started with: good products sell. They do not require deception.
However, some companies in the solar industry seem to think they need to get people to buy their products.
They bring darkness to something that should be full of light.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.