PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Karlene Chase decided last year to put solar panels on her Warwick home, she says a salesperson promised the energy would cover her monthly electricity costs and an upfront federal tax credit would help pay for the project.
But so far, Chase said, none of that has come true.
“If I could take them off my house and cancel the entire thing I absolutely would,” Chase told Target 12.
Chase said the solar panels are failing to generate enough energy to cover her electrical needs, meaning she’s now paying back the money she borrowed for the solar array in addition to her monthly electricity bill.
And when she filed her tax return this year, Chase said she discovered a $16,000 tax credit she hoped to put toward her loan would actually come back to her over several years because of her income level. Chase said she’s now paying more than $260 per month for the loan.
“I’m financing the panels plus I have an electric bill, which I was not aware was going to happen,” Chase added.
Chase said she reached out to Target 12 to share her story after hearing about a lawsuit filed by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha against a different solar company than the one she used. She’s hopeful others can learn from her experience and avoid similar issues if they are looking to get solar panels.
“Promises are made and you don’t get that money,” she said. “It’s a big chunk of money not to get.”
AG Neronha’s focus on the industry
Chase’s solar problems are echoed by others across the state, representing a broader issue in a growing industry that’s become a focus for Neronha.
The state’s top prosecutor in June filed a lawsuit against a solar company called Smart Green Solar LLC and its owner, Jay Gotra, alleging the company misled customers to land sales.
“What consumers were left with was financing costs that were greater than they expected — federal tax credits that didn’t amount to what it should have been and then the energy savings didn’t cover the existing costs,” Neronha said earlier this year.
Gotra fired back at the attorney general, accusing him of going after small businesses for issues the owner argued had already been resolved.
Gotra called the lawsuit wrongful prosecution and said he was dumbfounded by the allegations.
“This is why small businesses aren’t winning. It’s not because of big business — they are firing personally at me,” Gotra said in June. “Why? because I’m a small business owner.”
What to know if you’re considering solar
The solar industry has been growing quickly in recent years. Rhode Island Energy reports there were about 4,400 new solar installations last year, marking a sharp increase the roughly 1,800 reported in 2018. So far this year, the utility company says there’s already been about 4,000 new installations.
“Every year, more and more people are going solar and that’s due to two things: the utility price increases every single year, so the savings benefit is greater. Also, more of their neighbors are going solar, so there’s more proof of concept,” said Jim Aubin, a solar energy regional manager with Balance Energy Rhode Island.
But Aubin warned that because the industry is still relatively new and constantly changing, some companies and salespeople aren’t always up to speed on tax policy and how people qualify for federal subsidies.
“If the rep doesn’t seem knowledgeable or professional, it is a good indication that the company they are with isn’t,” he said.
If a homeowner is planning to buy solar panels, Aubin urges them to shop around for a loan and check with a tax professional to clearly understand what type of credits are available. He also recommends people use the so-called “net metering” program, which gives residents the ability to power their home first and then receive credit for any unused energy.
Additionally, people can rent solar panels directly from companies, he noted.
“Don’t be afraid to have the solar company own the system,” Aubin said. “The customer just buys the electricity from the system for cheaper than the utility sells it at a controlled price long-term.”
Many Rhode Islanders are happy they made the switch, including Steve Provost of Cumberland, who said he would recommend solar to anyone after his money-saving experience.
One big takeaway is to always review the contract carefully, so you know what you’re getting into.
Editors Note: This story was updated to provide additional context.