COCOA, Fla. — Solar power has become increasingly popular for many Floridians, but there can be a dark side to this sun-loving technology.
When Action 9 consumer investigator Jeff Deal walked into the Orlando office for Vision Solar to get answers for a consumer, he was asked to step outside to talk.
On the way out Deal asked, “Have you had any complaints about this before?”
A worker responded, “If it’s legal, I won’t answer the questions.”
Deal was inquiring about the status of Virginia Dugan’s solar panels that were stacked in her Daytona Beach yard two years after she signed a deal with Vision Solar.
Dugan said, “A sad ending to something I thought was going to be beneficial.”
The panels never passed inspection and never provided any power to her home.
She’s not the only one to have issues with solar panels. The Attorney General’s office in Florida has received around 170 complaints about Vision Solar.
Across the country, solar complaints in general to the Federal Trade Commission have gone up 800% over the span of five years.
But there is some optimism about the state of solar in the Sunshine State.
Action 9 met with Dr. James Fenton, Director of Florida Solar Energy Center at UCF. FSEC is the state’s premier energy research institution. Dr. Fenton showed the team the latest panels and technology being studied right now. His teams focus on renewable energy, including testing different solar panels for efficiency.
Dr. Fenton said, “The solar industry is doing great. Okay, our biggest issue now probably to be honest with you, it’s more on the workforce side.”
Fenton doesn’t believe there are enough people trained to do the work and says there is room in the industry for bad actors who take advantage of customers by over-promising and under-delivering. But he doesn’t believe that’s unique to solar.
“That’s the problem we’ve always had, we had snake oil salesmen in earlier days,” Fenton said.
And he admits the high upfront costs make it tough for some people. But he believes when it comes to technology, solar is now at a price point where it makes sense for a lot of homeowners. He pointed out, it’s come a long way in the last 14 years.
“In 2009 solar was the most expensive utility power you can make. Today, it’s the cheapest,” he said.
Dr. Fenton believes with the price of electricity rising, and government incentives available, most people who get solar with a reputable company in Florida will make money--especially if combined with an electric vehicle.
In fact, Virginia Dugan does have a second house with Vision Solar panels that are working.
For those interested in exploring solar, Dr. Fenton recommends looking for a co-op like Solar United Neighbors, that will get a group together in one area, seek out bids from vetted companies at a bulk rate. Once a vendor is selected, homeowners have the option to buy-in at the group rate or pass.
Dr. Fenton said, “Prices keep getting better and better as time goes on, and the quality of materials come up.”
While the Florida Attorney General’s office is investigating Vision Solar and a handful of other companies, Vision has now offered to help Virginia Dugan and others at the company’s expense.
Vision Solar told Action 9 it takes the complaints seriously, and it’s started a taskforce to expedite projects at a standstill even if that means cancelling them. That’s what happened in Virginia’s case. After she declined the offer for help, Vision agreed to haul away the pile of panels and cancel out what she owed on them.
Dugan told Action 9, she just hopes others will do their research before signing on with any company.
Referencing the pile of panels in her yard before Vision offered to haul them away, Dugan said, “That’s a real waste of my good money. I’m still paying on those. Pretty frustrating.”
And while home battery back-up systems with solar panels are enticing with storms here in Florida, Dr. Fenton doesn’t believe they are cost effective yet. He recommends getting panels now, but believes it’s better to wait on the batteries until after the price comes down.
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