While scrolling through Facebook earlier this month, Vikram Aggarwal wasn’t surprised to see a handful of ads for rooftop solar panels. As the founder of an online solar marketplace, he’s an obvious target for the tech giant’s sophisticated algorithm.Â
What did catch his attention was what those ads were promising.Â
“None of them were being very truthful,” said Aggarwal, the founder of the website EnergySage. “They’re all very shady.”
Some of the ads, which Business Insider reviewed, suggest that certain states are giving away solar panels for free or that utilities will pay customers to put solar panels on their roofs. And nearly all of them stated that there are no out-of-pocket expenses.
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“The utility never pays solar customers any kind of cash,” said Aggarwal, whose website allows users to compare quotes from different solar providers, for which it generates leads. EnergySage charges solar providers to participate on the website. Some providers pay recurring fees, while others pay a fee when they win business through the site, which typically amounts to about 3% to 4% of the total system cost.Â
Misleading ads are not new to the solar industry, but experts that Business Insider reached for this story said the problem could become worse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.Â
Traditionally, solar companies â€” which sell, lease, and loan panels â€” make a large chunk of their sales pitches in person. Company employees will hang out at stores like Home Depot, for example, to drum up prospective customers.Â
But in March, in-person salesÂ ground to a halt, driving companies to invest in a digital-only sales strategy.Â
“We’re seeing a lot of success in the conversion to digital sales,” Lynn Jurich, the CEO of the rooftop solar company Sunrun, told investors in the company’s quarterly earnings call earlier this month. “Advertising is cheap right now. So the stronger, better-capitalized companies are able to spend there and actually generate the leads.”
None of the misleading ads that we found were linked to Sunrun.
As more companies take their lead generation online, “it becomes tougher and tougher to find new potential clients,” said Rick Lopes, chief of public affairs at the Contractors State License Board in California, home to the nation’s largest solar market.
“They’re going to get more and more aggressive and be more and more tempted to mislead or misrepresent in order to try to get the lead,” Lopes said of solar companies. “It absolutely could become a bigger issue.”Â
Have you come across deceptive practices in the solar industry? Please email us at email@example.com.Â
On Facebook, many solar ads are published by a lead generator, not the installer itself.Â
Lead generators â€” which aren’t unique to the solar industry â€” are typically websites designed to draw in prospective customers and then gather and sell their information, such as their telephone numbers and average utility bill costs.Â
One issue is that lead generators don’t tend to reveal which companies they represent until after customers enter their information. And at that point, their personal data may have already been sold.Â
Another problem is that much of the information they present is misleading, according to more than a dozen ads reviewed by Business Insider.Â
We reached out to Facebook for comment, and sent over about 10 ads that included claims that were seen as misleading by sources in this story. In response, Facebook “removed several of the pages and accounts, and rejected the ads flagged to us for being misleading and deceptive,” said Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management.
Facebook has also taken legal action in the past. The Silicon Valley heavyweight filed suit against at least three companies for running misleading ads, some of which were related to solar energy.
A few solar ads posted on Facebook that Business Insider reviewed reference some kind of new solar “stimulus” program. There are no such programs, said Joshua Buswell-Charkow, deputy director at the California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA), an industry trade group that helps monitor ads.Â
“Before COVID happened, none of the ads were talking about a stimulus program,” Buswell-Charkow said. “But now with more of the shady actors, that’s what they’re referencing.”
One ad published in late March by the Facebook page California Clean Energy Association, for example, says “the solar stimulus initiative is now open for SoCal Edison customers who own their home.”Â
The ad leads to what appears to be a lead generator owned or operated by the company Bright Solar Marketing, which did not respond to a request for comment.Â
Another ad that ran in March featured text that said “NEW $1,000 solar stimulus package just announced!!”Â
After clicking the ad and entering contact information on what appeared to be a lead generator’s website, Business Insider received an email from someone with an address at the solar giant Vivint Solar.Â
Facebook took down the ad after it ran for an unknown amount of time because it didn’t include a paid-for-by disclaimer, which is required for ads related to issues and politics. Vivint Solar did not respond to a request for comment.Â
“Any ad that references stimulus and solar is lying,” Buswell-Charkow said. “There is no federal stimulus with regards to solar.”Â
To be clear, there is a generous tax credit available for residential solar customers across the country, and many states offer various rebate programs that can help reduce solar costs. But those programs are not new or part of recent government stimulus packages.Â
Other solar ads suggest that states are providing solar panels to residents at no cost or that electric utilities will pay customers to add solar energy to their homes.Â
“Federal and state programs pay you to go solar,” said an ad published in March by the page New York Energy Savings Program. According to Aggarwal, who’s in competition with other lead generators, these kinds of statements are misleading because customers are not getting paid to switch to solar. These programs can just help cut costs.Â
When Business Insider originally clicked on the ad, it linked to a page where you could sign up to schedule a virtual solar consultation “powered by Sigora Solar.” In addition, a number listed on the page routed to someone who said he was an “authorized Sigora Solar dealer.”Â
Shortly after reaching out to Sigora Solar for comment, the company’s name no longer appeared on the scheduling page.
“We have a network of authorized dealers across the country that run and fund their own marketing campaigns,” Sigora Solar said in a statement to Business Insider. “We closely monitor all ads containing Sigora’s name and image to ensure they meet our brand standards, but it is contractually impossible to police all non-installer-specific marketing by our Authorized Dealer partners.”
Sigora went on to say that it doesn’t believe it’s misleading to say that customers can be paid to go solar, referencing a page on an official New York State website titled “Paying for Solar.” However, the page referred to how customers themselves might pay for solar and what tax incentives, rebates, and financing options they have at their disposal.Â
Business Insider also reviewed a handful of ads from the Facebook pages SolarCost and UPS Solar that link to pages with the headline “MA to give solar panels to homeowners at no cost down.”Â
“Massachusetts is not giving anything, so again, very misleading,” Aggarwal said.Â
Even the phrase “no cost down” can be misleading, he added, as customers will typically, at a minimum, pay monthly bills to the solar company if they opt for financing.Â
“There’s a fine line on what the homeowner is likely to read,” he said. “The way we think about it is it’s not really $0 out of pocket.”
Both SolarCost and UPS Solar are connected with the lead generator SolarLeadFactory, Business Insider found. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.Â
There’s no doubt that many customers save money by switching to solar. And in many states, which have net-metering provisions, you can get a credit on your utility bill for generating excess solar energy and putting it on the grid. But setting up a solar system very rarely comes at no cost to the consumer.Â
Several ads that Business Insider reviewed also appear as though they were published or backed by an authoritative source, such as a news outlet.Â
For example, some ads â€” which Facebook removed because they had no disclaimer about who paid for them â€” were posted by a page called El Paso County News. The page appears to be associated with a company called Skyline Solar.Â
The ads claim that “Colorado Springs utility is now paying El Paso County homeowners for switching to solar.” Skyline Solar did not respond to a request for comment.Â
To feign legitimacy, other ads use state seals, pages that appear as if they’re formal associations or societies, or a “.org” URLs, which tend to be associated with nonprofits.Â
According to Lopes, bad solar ads could be especially harmful for older adults in the wake of the pandemic.Â
“This is especially a problem for seniors who are spending more time online now,” he said. “They’re even more vulnerable to misleading advertisements.”Â
The worst-case scenario is that customers, regardless of age, end up overpaying for a solar system or lock themselves into a longterm lease that includes monthly payments that they can’t afford.Â
But bad ads also simply add confusion to the process of going solar, which already eludes many, an EnergySage spokesperson said in an email.Â
“Misleading solar ads create confusion and distrust about the true costs and benefits of going solar,” the spokesperson said. “When you consider how little the average consumer understands about the technology, the cost, or the buying process, these ads become all the more predatory and harmful.”
Add in the barrage of calls that ensue after someone submits to a misleading ad and the process can turn people off to solar altogether, no matter that it’s an important source of clean energy.Â
“It can also be a major turn off for people who are homeowners who want solar and who have the money but don’t want to be harassed,” Aggarwal said.Â
But while the pandemic may be driving more lead generation online, misleading solar ads are nothing new â€” and neither are efforts to stamp them out.Â
A number of different agencies including CALSSA and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) focus on consumer protection and say they’ve been working on this issue for some time. SEIA’s general counsel, John Smirnow, told Business Insider that the association has an “ongoing dialogue with the lead generation community.”Â
“But there are bad actors out there so we have to constantly be vigilant to shut them down,” he added.Â
Have you come across misleading solar ads online? Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org