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Clean Energy Scams and What To Do About Them

As a clean energy installer, it really infuriates me when I read inflated and bogus marketing claims put forth by obvious scammers. What do you think we, as an industry, should do about this? Why don't you expose them? – Bill C., Clean Energy Installer

Bill, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this question and now that we are in a clean energy renaissance, I expect it won’t be the last.  To others out there, please feel free to send me examples by emailing solarsklar@aol.com along with any questions for further columns. To answer Bill’s question, I’d like to address both the installer and the consumer.  Here’s my double response:

Dear clean energy business: If you see a store being robbed, you call the police. If you believe you are seeing a fraudulent business making bogus claims, drop a note to your State Attorney General’s Office. Some states have consumer offices or trade commissions that deal with deceptive advertising.

The best notification is a short note including a scanned PDF of the ad or promotional materials with a letter from your company saying you noticed this, have been in the clean energy business for X years. Include the URL to a publication or report that addresses an aspect of their claim. If you have a state SEIA, ASES or other clean energy group in the state, CC them as well.

Dear consumer: If the pitch is “too good to be true” it probably is fraudulent. If a company is offering an energy system at half the cost, and claiming twice the output, it is probably neither.  Collect from the sales rep three references of installations with pictures in your area, and call them and ask questions — ask them if you can “come buy and look at the system.”

If the company claims it’s a member of a trade group, go to the web site of the group and check. If the company claims that the product is certified by a national or state entity, get on their web site or call to confirm. Solar tax credits, for instance, are conditional on equipment certifications.

On energy efficiency, I am even more concerned because hundreds of millions of dollars are being dispersed through state grants. Many states through their energy, housing and community action agencies have excellent training and great programs to insure proper installations for low-income residents. But some private sector companies seem to be taking advantage of middle-income residents, sometimes unintentionally, by providing piece meal services.

I am seeing selective use of insulation or the purchasing of expensive windows with minimal insulation in the walls. So I am appealing to the many full service energy efficiency providers to team up and be more proactive in watching your market and insuring consumers are educated. You may need to go to your local municipal, county or state housing, energy, environmental or consumer education offices to urge them to provide information by web, posters and even public seminars so consumers know their options, and look at energy efficiency comprehensively.

A family in my neighborhood in Northern Virginia insulated their house walls but not their attic and had single pane windows without storm windows. I asked them, when are they going to address the windows.  Their response was “we like them as they are, they still have the old glass.” R-1 windows and an R-5 attic with R-30 walls will save some energy, but not a lot.

It's OK to make incremental improvements in high value energy efficiency — but only as long as it is understood that the process must be continued to have real economic impact.

I am also seeing some rather comical PV and small wind claims that just can’t be true — usually by new companies with no commercial track records. What is most surprising to me are the calls and emails I receive from around the country by potential customers asking about new technologies and new products.

Many times when I go to the websites of these “new” companies, I find shoddy web productions, with typos and pictures of supposed installations (but not of their product). It would seem to me, these would be "dead giveaways" that would certainly create concern — but unfortunately not with many enthusiastic customers!

Now I tried lots of new clean energy products on my home and two office buildings to be sure — but I have done so understanding there was some risk involved and some kinks to work out. So be it.

Today, however, I am seeing more and more regional excesses, which means that it’s time for all of us in the community to be vigilant, provide thoughtful input to the authorities and spend more time for outreach to educate the community. 

So I urge all of you in the clean energy business to participate in more educational events this summer and fall.  With every great opportunity there are challenges and burdens – let’s all keep our eyes open and be part of the solution.

Have a question about renewable energy or energy efficiency for Scott Sklar?  Email solarsklar@aol.com.

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