NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - In sunny coastal cities, solar can mean savings.
But it can also ignite problems.
A North Charleston grandmother said she wasn't clear what she was signing up for when she agreed to install solar panels on her home.
It started with a salesman at her door and ended with a 20-year lease with increasing annual costs.
"We talked about it and everything, and he assured me there is no charge for the panels," said Ms. Murphy, who has macular degeneration which causes loss of vision in her eyes. "I eventually said, 'Ok, let's go with it then.' I kept questioning him on it. And he kept saying there's no charge for the panels."
The salesman also sent her an email saying, "There are no additional fees for the panels themselves."
Murphy said she did not realize she was agreeing to a 20-year lease.
She is now paying $101.31 per month for the panels on top of the utility bill and taxes.
In 17 years, the panels will cost $164.69 per month due to a 2.9% annual escalator.
The company, Vivint Solar, said there "seems to be some confusion about installation fees vs. the cost of leasing the equipment."
They said Murphy was provided with the contract and lease agreement.
A spokesperson said they believe the salesman was "trying to explain that there are no upfront costs/fees associated with the design and installation the PV system on her home. This is absolutely true."
Murphy filed a complaint against Vivint Solar with the State Office of Regulatory Staff, which handles investigations of solar leasing companies.
The Better Business Bureau has the Utah-based company listed as non-rated with 598 complaints filed over three years.
The complaints range from slow repairs to electrical issues and sales complaints.
The S.C. ORS investigation determined "the information provided in the email by the agent is not correct," but ultimately said the lease she signed is "in compliance with the template" companies are supposed to use.
The contract stands as legal.
Vivint Solar denies Murphy was misled. They tell us their policy allows customers to cancel their 20-year lease agreement at no penalty for any reason right up until the point of installation.
They said Murphy had nearly two months to do so and did not cancel in the window provided.
A company spokesperson added, "She could decide to purchase the system outright from us and continue to enjoy the benefits of clean, renewable energy. We feel that we have delivered exactly what was promised to Ms. Murphy and are not able to offer her a cancellation of her system free of charge so long after her system was installed."
Murphy said it would cost $750 per panel to remove the 34 panels on her roof.
Vivint said generally solar customers save money over time because utility rate energy costs increase without warning and historically at higher rates.
"When the details of her lease agreement payments are calculated into a cost per kilowatt hour for the purpose of comparison, Ms. Murphy is paying just over 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour for solar energy vs. paying 14.5-15 cents per kilowatt hour for the energy from her utility company. There is no way to know how much she will be paying her utility company for energy 20 years from now, but she knows exactly what she will be paying for solar at that time."
For now, Murphy said her utility bill plus her leasing bill means she's paying more overall than she was before having the panels installed.
"Solar is something that's becoming more popular. People want to help the environment and they also want to lower utility bills," said Juliana Harris with the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs.
Door-to-door solar sales are common, especially in the summer.
But Harris pointed out that not every sales person is working directly for a solar company.
"They might be taking your information and basically bidding it out to a few different solar companies," she said."So you want to be very careful who you're talking to, what information you're giving them."
Other warnings from Consumer Affairs?
- Installing solar panels could void your home warranty.
- Your roof may not be able to support the weight of the panels.
- Installing them could be against HOA rules and lead to heavy fines
"If the person selling these solar panels is making big, wild promises about utility savings, you certainly want to call your utility company," Harris said.
The South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff said they have investigated 12 solar leasing companies since 2014.
ORS said Solar.SC.Gov is a one-stop shop for all things solar in SC: http://solar.sc.gov/
The agency has not revoked the certificate or requested penalties in any of those cases.
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