Financing for solar panels creates problems for home owners and potential home buyers. Increasing use of property assessed financing is seen as a predatory lending threat by the Mortgage Bankers Association similar to the sub-prime lending practices that caused the 2008 housing crisis. The financing option also makes it harder for properties to be eligible for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages.
‘Property assessed’ financing for solar panels reveal serious problems for Realtors, lenders
By Peter Schorsch
As solar energy expands as Florida’s next big growth industry, with it comes a host of unforeseen consequences.
While promises of reduced energy costs for consumers and the lure of “no credit needed,” county-approved loans are indeed attractive, easy financing and lower energy costs could be masking other, potentially devastating, economic problems.
A letter last year from the Pinellas Realtors Organization, standing for over 7,000 real estate professionals countywide, to County Commissioner Charlie Justice cautions against one such situation where the lure of cheap solar hides something much deeper, and darker.
In 2016, The City of St. Petersburg considered using “property assessed clean energy” (PACE) financing for solar energy-related improvements to homes and businesses throughout the region. PACE, which The Wall Street Journal calls one of the “fastest-growing types of financing in the U.S.,” gives property owners special financing agreements with local municipalities, which agree to repay the costs of green energy improvements — such as solar panels — through long-term assessments on property tax bills. Pasco County already has PACE.
The issue was again brought up at a recent Pinellas Board of County Commissioners meeting last week, which was then pushed to a future workshop.
While the intent of the PACE initiatives was to offer no personal liability for the property owner, PACE liens — like property taxes — take precedence over mortgages, said a joint letter from Mindy Rovillo, Pinellas Realtors 2016 chair, and David Bennett, the group’s president and chief executive officer.
“This makes the bonds easier for municipalities to sell,” Rovillo and Bennett write, “but if a home is foreclosed on then liens are paid before the mortgage lender can recoup any money.”
In 2010, Florida lawmakers approved legislation enabling PACE initiatives, which quickly became a boon to finance companies. Since then, the state has developed five active PACE programs, which offer both commercial and residential financing. Homeowners would see special property assessments on tax rolls, revenue which would pay back the bonds.
Realtors are warning — as they have since 2012 — that if the average home sells every five years — and the typical PACE loan is for 20 years — real estate agents will be on the hook to explain this special tax assessment to potential homebuyers.
“Once the prospective buyer learns about this new cost to purchasing the home, this information may cause delays in the completion of the transaction or even a cancellation,” the letter said.
In addition, refinancing a property under a PACE lien could be “problematic.”
“Homeowners who participate in the PACE program with the goal of reducing their monthly expenses through lower energy bills could find themselves unable to take advantage of the significant savings that even a single percentage drop in interest rates can bring with it,” Rovillo and Bennett wrote.
Realtors’ fears about the hidden financial consequences PACE initiatives for solar upgrades are just another of the many red flags raised in the push to expand Florida’s solar industry.
Several news reports exposed the range of questionable sales practices used by solar companies to get consumers to install panels on their homes. For example, SolarCity, one of the industry’s largest players, offers 20-year leases to finance solar panel installations.
However, problems began when the billion-dollar corporation began lowering the requirements by using subpar credit scores to target homeowners looking to save on electric costs by financing solar panels. This practice has led a wave of foreclosures — some estimates put the number in the thousands — of homes under lien for unpaid solar panels. The practice has thrown chaos into mortgage companies trying to sort out who exactly owns the panels.
In addition, Sun Sentinel reporter Ron Hurtibise recently revealed a burgeoning industry in South Florida of fly-by-night companies offering to finance major improvements — such as solar panels — for up to 20 years with no money down and no credit checks. Promises of rebates that would “pay for themselves” came up against a harsh reality when homeowners learn they are ineligible for such reimbursements.
PACE loans face a similar reality, Realtors say.
“Homeowners who participate in the PACE program with the goal of reducing their monthly expenses through lower energy bills could find themselves unable to take advantage of the significant savings that even a single percentage drop in interest rates can bring with it.”
While favoring structural improvements such as hurricane strengthening, Realtors believe PACE loans prove to have an adverse effect on mortgage availability, particularly since the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) does not allow Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal Home Loan Banks to purchase mortgages under PACE liens.
“Approximately 75 percent of residential properties utilize Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Federal Home Loan Banks to finance residential mortgages either directly or indirectly. In a community that has a high number of senior citizens, first-time homebuyers, veterans, and those in search of workforce housing,” Rovillo and Bennett write. “It does not, in our eyes, seem prudent to engage in a program that could deny 75 percent of the financing market to a property.
Concerns over the PACE program have led the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) to lobby the Donald Trump administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and other federal agencies to restrict these residential energy-efficiency loans, comparing them to the subprime mortgages which lack federal consumer protections against predatory lending.
According to the MBA website, the group “believes that energy-efficient home improvements can be beneficial for homeowners; however, MBA has significant concerns with the PACE program construct and the risk it poses to traditional lien priority.”
Florida solar companies are pushing back against consumer protection requirements amidst investigations by federal and state governments for fraud. The industry is claiming these protections to stop fraudulent companies will be a burden on their small businesses, even though most are large corporations, some valued over one billion dollars.
Questionable practices, fraud, hidden costs: The dark side of Florida’s solar industry
By Peter Schorsch
Florida’s solar industry has embraced a comfortable narrative – they are the small-business “little guys” facing giant corporations, which care little about consumers and renewable energy.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. And it reveals a dark side to sunny solar.
For example, The Daily Caller is reporting on an investigation by the Treasury Department into potential fraud by solar panel companies – many receiving three years of taxpayer cash — in a case that could have “two-and-a-half times” the reach of Solyndra, the scandal that dogged the early years of the Obama administration.
Republicans senators are calling on Treasury Inspectors General Eric Thorson and J. Russell George to offer updates on the investigation into solar companies inflating market value of their products to bolster taxpayer funding.
According to a letter to Treasury officials from Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska: “The Department recently indicated that applicants included ineligible costs or otherwise overstated the value of their solar energy investments by claiming approximately $1.3 billion in unwarranted cash grants.”
Murkowski and other Republicans have been waiting for results of the investigation, scheduled for release back in June 2015. For more than three years, federal officials investigated potential fraud by solar companies.
“Based on the information available,” Murkowski wrote in November, “we remain concerned that the 1603 cash grant program and the administration of the investment tax credits lack sufficient transparency, oversight and enforcement to protect taxpayers.”
In addition to the Treasury investigation, a recent New York Times article and reporting by the South Florida Sun Sentinel exposes Florida’s solar industry for what it truly is – billion-dollar, for-profit corporations engaging in highly questionable business practices to prey on consumers.
SolarCity, the nation’s leading installer of rooftop solar panels – and a favorite in the renewable energy sector – promotes itself to investors with a single idea, a 20-year lease to sign up for its solar panels.
However, SolarCity has employed practices that echo big-bank mortgages that led to the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008.
Sun Sentinel reporter Ron Hurtibise uncovered other programs throughout South Florida that have cropped up over the past two years, giving consumers, particularly those elderly or disabled, a chance to finance major improvements – such as solar panels – for up to 20 years with no money down and no credit checks.
Unscrupulous contractors target many of these Floridians with promises that solar panel rebates that would “pay for themselves.”
Later, those consumers learn they have been scammed, and are ineligible for such reimbursements.
NYT journalists Danielle Ivory and Diane Cardwell also found dozens of homeowners who, over the last three years, entered long-term solar panel agreements shortly before (and sometimes after) defaulting on mortgages. More than a dozen homeowners were already in default, or with other liens on the property, by the time SolarCity sent paperwork to the government.
The situation got to the point where Mohammed Ahmed Gangat, an attorney for SolarCity, was forced to file documents with a New York State Court asking for an extension. The company was, as the Times reports, “inundated with hundreds of lawsuits in New York, and thousands across the country, all of which have named SolarCity as a defendant in a residential foreclosure action.”
A statement from SolarCity representatives clarified Gangat’s statement, saying that there were only 139 cases out of “more than 305,000 installed customers.”
Either way, the figures pose a problem: If the attorney (who SolarCity pointed out was not an employee) cited incorrect figures in his filing, he would be subject to ethical disciplinary action. On the other hand, if the number of cases is indeed “in the thousands,” SolarCity – now owned by automaker Tesla – could face a “threat to its financial performance that it has not disclosed to the government and investors.”
To consumers, the basic premise of SolarCity is simple, install solar panels and save on electric bills.
The company offers to pick up installation costs, an average of $25,000 to $30,000, and charge customers a flat rate for electricity produced by the panels, usually at rates 10 to 15 percent below that of utilities.
Customers get cheaper power; SolarCity gets regular monthly payments.
But in the past few years, SolarCity lowered requirements for entry into the program – using a cutoff 650 FICO score, considered by many to be only “fair” credit. But that credit score is assessed months before solar panels are installed, and can fluctuate considerably based upon financial situations.
As Rod Griffin, director of public education at credit reporting agency Experian, told the Times: “For a consumer with a sub-700 score, it’s likely that there are already some indicators of risk there, but not a severe one to that particular lender, I guess, at that point.”
Relying on a single credit score – one that could change for the worse at almost any time – calls into question SolarCity’s business practices, especially considering the expensive hardware that will be sitting on foreclosed homes, which could number in the hundreds (or even thousands).
Adding to the confusion are courts that will have a difficult time determining the true ownership of installed solar panels.
Of course, SolarCity is not the only solar company facing these problems, but it is one of the largest.
“SolarCity needs to contest every foreclosure to have any realistic chance of getting either paid for or the return of their solar panels,” Connecticut attorney Christopher McCormick said. After a decade representing banks, McCormick now works with homeowners facing foreclosure.
“Those panels are pretty valuable,” he told the Times. “It makes sense that the company would not want to lose them.”
In addition to McCormick, several groups have formed to educate the public on the dark reality of the solar industry.
One such website – MakeSolarSafe.com – says its goal is to “share the truth about solar energy” and help policymakers make “well-informed energy policy decisions.”
The group reveals the downsides of “net metering,” reimbursements to solar rooftop owners for electricity generation they return to the grid, which results in “a great deal of hidden cost.”
According to the website: “Customers leasing rooftop solar systems are often unaware of additional maintenance costs for which they are responsible. In fact, they are often required to purchase additional maintenance agreements with the company they are leasing from. Average panel cleaning costs can be as much as $20 per panel, costing customers with large photovoltaic systems as much as $700 per year for cleaning.”
Another hidden cost of solar power is the maintenance of the shared electrical grid, by way of increased voltage and stress throughout the power infrastructure.
Since solar energy is by nature intermittent, the introduction of solar-based electricity often causes spikes to the entire system, leaving consumers (including those not using solar) to pay the increased maintenance costs.
Massive solar corporations, questionable business practices, thousands of foreclosures and hidden costs for consumers — it is far from the “little guy” image solar groups such as Southern Alliance for Clean Energy portray the industry in its effort to expand solar power throughout Florida.
Original article at: http://floridapolitics.com/archives/234536-questionable-practices-fraud-hidden-costs-dark-side-floridas-solar-industry
Consumers must be protected from misleading tactics and false promises of rooftop solar lead generators. Lead generators make it easier for companies to target customers with fraudulent products promising energy savings. The FTC has started to take notice and is looking to crack down on the practice.
Congress, administration should look at ties between rooftop solar and lead generators
As a long time supporter of the renewable energy industry, I continue to be pleased about the expansion of renewable fuels that contribute to the reduction of our carbon footprint. Around my home state of California, and all across the nation – especially in the West, where sunshine is abundant – the proliferation of rooftop solar can be seen in almost every residential neighborhood. This is a good thing.
However, the rapid deployment of rooftop solar panels has also led to the rapid expansion of an industry – known as lead generators – that is often rife with consumer fraud. Lead generators are a type of business that function exactly as their name indicates: generate leads for businesses looking to aggressively grow their customer base. Lead generators can interface with the public through multiple avenues, including online, in person or over the phone. In practice this means they generate business for industries by knocking on people’s doors, sending fliers in the mail, generating telemarketing phone calls or pop-up advertisements on popular websites.
In the case of rooftop solar, lead generators often offer customers promises of significant savings on their electric bills, access to government loan programs, or other offers that require a quick decision in order to take advantage of a special offer. The problem is, apparently many of these promises are misleading, and can pressure customers to make a decision that is against their own financial best interest.
It is known that rooftop solar is a prime target for the lead generation industry. The upcoming lead generation convention in Las Vegas later this month has a panel on “How to Maximize Your Returns from Solar Leads” and the organizers entice industry participants by promising that the “The solar boom is well underway.” But consumer advocates and investigative journalists have sought to expose this business relationship. A recent article in the The Salt Lake Tribune, found examples of lead generators calling on behalf of the: “Utah Public Utilities Commission — a nonexistent entity that could be mistaken for the Utah Public Service Commission.”
While most Americans have never heard of the lead generator business, the federal government is aware of the industry and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – whose official mission is “Protecting Americas Consumers” – has weighed in with serious concerns and taken actions against the industry. The FTC watches lead generators closely, because they have been at the forefront of many consumer fraud issues, including pressuring people to take loans that led to the mortgage crisis. Just last year, the FTC brought a federal action against a telemarketing firm in California that was targeting millions of Americans on the national Do Not Call Registry. The FTC is so concerned about lead generators, that late last year it produced a report looking at: “some of the consumer protection concerns…complexity and lack of transparency, aggressive or possibly deceptive marketing, and the potential misuse of consumers’ sensitive information.”
Lead generators are typically paid on commission, therefore incentivized to be very aggressive (e.g. ignoring the Do Not Call Registry) to close the deal. These tactics can generate near-term profits for rooftop solar companies, but they can sometimes lead to consumer abuse.
In the same The Salt Lake Tribune article, a representative of the rooftop solar industry explained that ethical rooftop solar companies reject this type of behavior by lead generators. He went on to say that anytime there is a rapid expansion in rooftop solar, that there will be: “a handful of unscrupulous people who are trying to take advantage of people’s ignorance.” The rooftop solar industry also has websites where consumers can go to learn more about rooftop solar and learn how to avoid scams. This is also good and the industry should be commended.
However, lead generators don’t actually sell solar panels – they only sell their leads to interested rooftop solar panel companies. This allows the rooftop solar industry to, on the one hand, decry the actions of lead generators – many of whom operate overseas – but on the other, buy those leads to try and make a sale.
We need government intervention to put an end to bad practices associated with the lead generation business – especially as it relates to rooftop solar. I urge Congress and the Administration to look into this matter, and identify ways to protect consumers. We cannot allow either the rooftop solar industry or the lead generator industry to act with impunity.
Ron Dellums represented California’s 9th District in the United States Congress from 1971–1998, and served as Oakland Mayor from 2007-2010.
April 5th Update:
Today the Florida House Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed HB 1351 out of committee. This is the next step in passing important consumer protections for solar customers.
Original Post (March 20)
On Tuesday, March 21st, the Florida House Energy & Utilities Committee will hold a hearing on Rep. Ray Rodrigues’ bill, HB 1351, relating to the installation of solar panels. His bill is a major step forward in protecting consumers’ rights from predatory companies seeking to defraud potential customers in the state of Florida. Rep. Rodrigues’ bill also establishes safety, performance and reliability standards for installation of renewable energy devices including solar panels.
This bill shows Florida’s commitment to safe solar and is an example for other states to follow in protecting their citizens in this growing industry. There are many examples across the country of consumers being defrauded by companies that take advantage of solar energy programs and leave the consumer holding the bag.
The bill’s text is available here. Examples of fraud and safety concerns can be found on our Solar Horror Stories page.
A loan company targeting potential solar consumers has been sued by residents of California and Florida claiming the company deceived customers into believing the loans were risk-free and low cost. The loans also prevented customers from selling their homes or getting new mortgages.
By Taylor Arluck
Law360, New York (March 13, 2017, 6:52 PM EDT) — Ygrene Energy Fund Inc., which provides homeowners with financing for clean energy projects, pushed risky loans with undisclosed fees and deceived consumers about government support for the transactions, a proposed class action has alleged in California federal court.
California and Florida homeowners contend that a network of 3,200 “ill-trained and self-interested home improvement contractors” maximized profits by pushing Ygrene Energy’s Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, loans on them without properly disclosing prepayment penalties and fees. The contractors also didn’t tell consumers that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wouldn’t purchase or refinance mortgages on a property with an outstanding PACE loan, according to the complaint filed on March 9.
“Ygrene deceives consumers into believing the PACE loan is a risk-free, no-strings-attached program, backed by government support that allows immediate energy efficiency improvements to a home in exchange for nothing more than increased property tax assessments,” according to the complaint.
The PACE loans are financial instruments that allow homeowners to opt into a special assessment district to receive financing for energy improvements repaid through an annual property tax assessment, according to the complaint. The homeowners alleged Ygrene Energy Fund marketed the loans as a “smart alternative to traditional credit-based financing.”
In reality, the PACE loans functioned as additional mortgages that can’t be transferred to future buyers and that contain inadequately disclosed, surreptitiously added prepayment waiver fees, according to the complaint. The homeowners alleged that the loan structure makes it “impossible or nearly impossible” for them to sell their homes without first paying off the loan and incurring a large prepayment penalty.
The primary financing instrument for PACE loans are municipal revenue bonds secured by liens. The loan program originated in California in 2008, but in 2010 the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, raised concerns over the seniority of liens that led to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac refusing to buy mortgages with affiliated PACE loans, according to the complaint.
The homeowners alleged Ygrene Energy Fund knew the FHFA policy would force consumers to satisfy their PACE loans before being able to sell their homes but failed to disclose it.
A Ygrene Energy Fund representative said the company was confident in its PACE financing.
“We take these matters seriously and at the same time we feel there’s no merit to the case,” Mike Lemyre, a Ygrene Energy Fund representative, told Law360 Monday.
Manuel S. Hiraldo, a partner at Hiraldo PA who represents the homeowners, declined to comment on the pending litigation Monday.
Attorneys from Kasdan LippSmith Weber Turner LLP and Tycko & Zavareei LLP for the proposed subclasses did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Counsel information for Ygrene Energy Fund was not immediately available Monday.
The case is Grachian L. Smith et al. v. Ygrene Energy Fund Inc. et al., case number 3:17-cv-01258, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
–Editing by Jill Coffey.
The company, owned by Tesla, relies on monthly payments from solar panel customers. But foreclosures can halt those payments, and SolarCity relies on only one credit check to vet customers.
SolarCity’s Ties to Foreclosure Cases Raise Questions on Vetting Policies
SolarCity, the nation’s leading installer of rooftop solar panels and a renewable energy darling, has pitched its value to investors on a simple premise: Once customers sign up to lease a system, they will make payments to the company month after month for at least 20 years.
But even when the customers look good enough on paper, it does not always work out that way.
In dozens of cases over the last three years, The New York Times has found, SolarCity has reached long-term lease agreements with homeowners shortly before or even after they defaulted on mortgages. In at least 14 cases, the homeowners were already in default, or had other liens on the property, by the time SolarCity filed paperwork about the panels with the government.
The cases raise questions about how well the company vets customers. In addition, it is unclear how many foreclosure lawsuits involve the company over all.
In September, a lawyer for SolarCity, Mohammed Ahmed Gangat, filed a document in New York state court arguing that the company needed to file another document late because it had in recent months been “inundated with hundreds of lawsuits in New York, and thousands across the country, all of which have named SolarCity as a defendant in a residential foreclosure action.”
But when asked about that filing, SolarCity said that it was currently involved in far fewer cases — 139 — and that the lawyer had been mistaken. The company said the court filing had been made without the company’s reviewing or approving it. Mr. Gangat is not a SolarCity employee.
“Out of more than 305,000 installed customers, SolarCity is currently involved in 139 such proceedings,” the company said in a statement. “The litigation is not adversarial — being named in the foreclosure proceeding provides us with advance notice that we need to reassign a contract, and many are immediately resolved with the relevant bank.”
The company is also involved in foreclosure proceedings outside the courts but said it could not say how many.
Mr. Gangat did not immediately respond to calls or emails.
If the lawyer’s figures are correct, SolarCity, which is now owned by the automaker Tesla, may be facing a threat to its financial performance that it has not disclosed to the government and investors. The foreclosures can lead to a pause, or an end, of the lucrative monthly payments customers pay for the leases.
If the lawyer’s figures are false, he could face disciplinary proceedings under ethics rules, depending on the circumstances. The company said it was planning to have the document filed in court on its behalf corrected.
In either situation, details of the cases identified by The Times raise questions about how well the company, relying on one credit check, vets potential customers.
What SolarCity offers its customers is simple in theory: savings on their electricity bills from the solar panels glistening on their roofs.
The company often pays most or all of the bill for the installation, worth $25,000 to $30,000 on average, and charges the customer an agreed-upon rate for the electricity the panels produce, typically 10 to 15 percent less than they would normally pay for power. In return, SolarCity receives steady monthly payments.
In the years since the company’s founding in 2006, it has lowered the FICO score, the widely used credit score created by the Fair Isaac Corporation, it requires to get its solar panels. It now uses a score of 650, generally considered a “fair” rating, as the cutoff.
But often, the score is assessed several months before a solar panel system is installed and registered — plenty of time for financial circumstances to change.
“For a consumer with a sub-700 score, it’s likely that there are already some indicators of risk there, but not a severe one to that particular lender, I guess, at that point,” said Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, a credit reporting agency.
SolarCity is not the only company to find itself in the midst of such lawsuits. Sunrun, a competitor, has been named in a small number of cases.
The foreclosure lawsuits do not appear to have made much of a dent in SolarCity’s bottom line. When a customer loses a home to a bank in foreclosure, the company also risks losing income from its energy system unless it can reach a deal to take the system back or contract with the new homeowners. Company executives say that even after figuring in foreclosures, more than 99 percent of contracts are ultimately reassigned, relocated or paid off in advance.
Executives at the company have never expressed much worry about the risks of foreclosures, boasting that customers tend to pay their electricity bills even when they are not paying anything else. “We have customers that are foreclosed,” Lyndon Rive, chief executive of SolarCity, said in an interview in 2012. “They’re still paying their electric bill, so they still pay us.”
When a customer loses a home to a bank, the ownership of the solar panels can become unclear. Banks often consider them part of the overall property as fixtures. SolarCity has argued that the panels are its “personal property.”
The company has succeeded in convincing some banks that the panels are not fixtures, according to court records. But several foreclosure lawyers who have not been involved with these cases said SolarCity might face an uphill battle, especially if it does not act in court to protect its ownership interest in the panels.
“SolarCity needs to contest every foreclosure to have any realistic chance of getting either paid for or the return of their solar panels,” said Christopher McCormick, a lawyer in Connecticut who spent a decade representing banks in foreclosure proceedings and now defends homeowners in the cases.
“Those panels are pretty valuable,” he said. “It makes sense that the company would not want to lose them.”
Even if foreclosures are a problem for SolarCity, its services may help some customers get by during rough financial times. Alexis Hickerson, a resident of West Haven, Conn., said she had the company install panels while she was still trying to work out a deal with her bank to keep her home after she and her husband lost money on investments.
According to court records, Ms. Hickerson stopped paying her mortgage on Feb. 1, 2016. SolarCity filed paperwork with the government on May 6, 2016, about the installation. Ms. Hickerson said she was now going through a short sale of her home.
Ms. Hickerson said her power bills had been lower with SolarCity. The company, she said, will be able to either lease its panels to the new buyers of her home or remove them.
“I am happy with SolarCity,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s one thing that hasn’t been a problem.”
Read original story at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/business/solarcity-foreclosure-cases.html
Three House Democrats – Henry Cuellar (Texas), Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.) and Bennie Thompson (Miss.) – are asking CFPB to investigate “unethical business practices” among some “bad actors” in the rooftop solar industry. “Our fear is if bad actors continue to operate unrestrained, the industry’s reputation will be so tainted that American consumers will shy away from embracing this important form of clean energy,” they write in a letter obtained by ME Thursday.
Full letter available to subscribers at: https://www.politicopro.com/f/?id=00000159-dcaa-d10a-abf9-ddefd18d0001
Firefighters are having trouble fighting solar panel fires. It is dangerous to the first responders because of fear of electrocution, buildings collapsing from the weight, and limited access to the center of the fire. The panels also make it challenging to get the fire out because a fire on the roof disables the source of ventilation and makes it even harder.
Why solar panels frustrate firefighters
New Jersey’s growing solar energy industry is creating some new hazards for firefighters and prompting the firefighting community and solar industry officials to develop new safety measures.
Firefighters say rooftop solar panel systems are in many cases limiting their ability to vent smoke from burning buildings, and firefighters must contend with panels that produce electrical current and can’t be shut down as long as the sun is shining.
“It changes the way we fight a fire,” said Atlantic County Fire Training Director Michael Corbo. “It’s a safety issue.”
Solar industry officials acknowledge the concerns and say they’re involved in research to limit the potential danger firefighters and other first responders face from live solar panels. They also said recently enacted fire code regulations in New Jersey require access aisles through the rows of solar panels that often cover the expansive flat roofs of everything from industrial buildings to schools.
Dan Whitten, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C., said the organization continues to support better building, fire and electrical codes and technological advances to improve safety for first responders.
“In fact, we have sought out opportunities to collaborate with firefighters on code and standards development such as improved firefighter access pathways, system-based fire testing methods and rapid shutdown system design that result in state-of-the-art solutions,” he said.
Some of those solutions don’t have to be elaborate.
All but about a dozen properties in Vineland are serviced by the city-owned Vineland Municipal Electric Utility.
The utility provides the Fire Department with the addresses of buildings on which solar panels are installed so firefighters know what to expect before arriving on the scene, said Vineland Fire Chief Bob Pagnini. There is no reason why, in other municipalities, either the companies that install the panels or the regular electricity provider can’t provide similar notifications, he said.
Such a notification wouldn’t be onerous, said Lyle Rawlings, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar Energy Industries Association, which covers New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The notice could be included in the packet of forms a company must fill out for municipal code enforcement offices before starting a project.
Rawlings said while he’s heard the concerns from firefighters for some time, he doesn’t see finding solutions as being a combative situation between the solar industry and firefighters. Both sides are still learning how to cope with the impact of new technology, he said.
New Jersey ranks fourth in the United States in installed solar capacity with 1,695 megawatts, according to the Solar Energies Industries Association. More than 1,700 more megawatts of solar electric capacity are expected to be installed in the state during the next five years, according to the organization.
With that explosion of solar arrays comes problems for firefighters.
For instance, about 7,000 solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Delanco, Burlington County, caused access problems for firefighters in September 2013. Six months later, firefighters said they faced electrocution risks from the panels in controlling a blaze at a warehouse in Berlin Township, Camden County.
Last month, firefighters battling a blaze in Providence, Rhode Island, said their efforts were marred by concerns that the extra weight from solar panels could cause a premature roof collapse. A recent fire in Merrick, New York, caused some solar panels to melt and fall on firefighters.
Corbo said the state holds information classes related to dealing with fire and solar panels twice a year. Atlantic County will hold a similar course depending on the number of firefighters interested in attending, he said.
“The majority of the fire service knows about the solar panel issue,” he said.
But roof access continues to be major problem, Corbo said. Firefighters unable to vent smoke through roofs now have to vent the materials in a more horizontal, side-to-side manner through windows or walls, he said. Firefighters may not want to work inside some structures for fear of premature roof collapse aided by the weight of a solar panel, he said.
“We have to adapt,” he said.
Rawlings said some of the new technologies include devices that attach to each solar panel and prevent electric current from leaving the panel, further limiting electrocution concerns. The solar panels will continue to be “hot,” he said, and remain so as long as there is sunlight.
“Common sense still applies” for firefighters dealing with solar panels during the course of their duties, he said. Wearing insulated gloves is one protective measure, he said.
But even with all the new safety advances, Rawlings estimates there are still about 45,000 solar arrays built under old fire, electrical and construction codes.
“Firefighters are still going to be faced with older systems that don’t meet the new codes,” he said. “They will continue to need training on how these systems work.”
An elderly woman’s home was set ablaze from a fire started by the solar panels on the roof. It did not take long for the weight to cause the roof to collapse resulting in even more damage to the home. The panels intended to be cash saving culminated in tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to the home.
SOLAR FLARE Pensioner’s home gutted after its cash-saving solar panels ‘set fire to the roof’
Firefighters rescue three cats from the blaze which caused tens of thousands of pounds damage
A PENSIONER’S home has been devastated by fire after cash-saving solar panels on the roof reportedly ‘burst into flames’.
A neighbour broke into the elderly woman’s home in sleepy Warligham, Surrey, as fire raged through the end-of-terrace property.
The blaze was quickly brought under control but the roof collapsed and the first floor is very badly damaged.
The semi-detached house was empty at the time of the blaze but firefighters rescued three cats from inside.
An elderly neighbour, who is in a wheelchair, was also rescued from the adjoining house.
The woman hadn’t noticed the fire raging and didn’t answer the door when neighbours knocked to alert her to the danger.
Two ambulances, four fire engines and fire service support vehicles dashed to the scene after the blaze was reported at 9.30am this morning.
Debbie Miles, who lives opposite, said a firefighter told her the fire started in solar panels on the roof.
“The panels caught fire and the roof has collapsed,” the child minder said. “It’s so lucky no-one was inside at the time.
“It was absolutely bellowing, but you couldn’t smell anything, it didn’t smell like fire.
“There were lots of flames. It’s very scary because you don’t think it’s going to happen near you.
“The firemen got here quite quickly so luckily it didn’t spread to the next-door house.
“One of our neighbours had to break in to the neighbour’s house to get her out. She was quite shaken up.
The ambulances were called for her but thank goodness everyone was ok.”
Pumps from Banstead, Croydon, Godstone and the aerial ladder platform from Leatherhead were this afternoon still at the scene.
A spokesman for Surrey Fire Service told The Sun Online the investigation into the exact cause of the blaze is still ongoing.
The owner of Salt River Solar in Arizona was sent to prison and hundreds of his customers were released from their lease with the company because fraud was so rampant. Problems were reported statewide involving equipment that was paid for and never installed, equipment that did not work, and lack of promised service.
Judge voids hundreds of solar leases in Arizona
Ryan Randazzo, The Republic | azcentral.com
Published 10:50 p.m. MT June 22, 2015
Fraud was so rampant at a now-defunct rooftop-solar-installation company in Surprise that the owner is not only serving a five-year prison term, but a judge has released hundreds of customers from their leases with the company.
Michael Allen Fricker, 55, owned Salt River Solar and Wind, which installed rooftop solar arrays throughout Arizona.
Fricker was sentenced last month to five years in prison by Pima County Superior Court Judge Casey McGinley of Tucson, who also released 1,157 customers from their leases.
Most of those customers never saw their solar panels installed, even though many had paid deposits. But 344 customers who did receive installations are among those released from their leases, court records say. It’s unclear whether any have been making monthly lease payments or if they paid leases up-front, whether they stopped paying when the company went out of business two years ago.
“This person was a serial financial predator,” said Ryan Anderson, director of communications for the Attorney General’s Office, which worked with the FBI on the case. “Mr. Fricker was engaged in a pattern of fraud that extended beyond his activities in Tucson.”
Anderson said the Attorney General’s Office was flooded with complaints statewide for problems involving equipment that was paid for but never installed, equipment that did not work properly, and customers who did not receive promised service.
Salt River Solar and Wind ceased operations in 2013 after the Registrar of Contractors revoked its license, but the Attorney General’s Office and the FBI continued their investigation.
Public records suggest Salt River Solar and Wind installed about 500 leased solar arrays in SRP and APS territories from 2009 to 2012, and hundreds of additional systems were canceled in 2012 as the company ran into trouble.
Some Tucson Electric Power customers could be eligible for restitution because Fricker’s activities in that utility’s territory were what the AG’s Office and the FBI targeted for prosecution.
Fricker required at least 25 TEP customers to pay him both an up-front deposit and the value of the TEP rebate they would get for the solar setup, with the promise they would get the rebate when it was paid, according to a criminal investigation by the Tucson office of the FBI’s Phoenix division.
But when TEP paid those rebates, totaling thousands of dollars in most cases, Fricker never paid it back to the customers.
Fricker was indicted on multiple felony charges in January 2014. On Oct. 29, he was convicted of fraudulent schemes and artifices, and illegally conducting an enterprise. He agreed to pay up to $1 million in restitution.
He could have avoided prison, but the FBI found Fricker violating a term of his plea agreement by marketing solar products in California, court records say.
The court revoked Fricker’s release conditions and ordered him held at the Pima County Jail pending sentencing. On May 18, McGinley sentenced Fricker to prison.
“That’s where he needs to be,” said Carol Girvan of Tucson. “We are on a long list of people that have been swindled by Mr. Fricker.”
Girvan and her husband, Paul, paid Fricker’s company $17,800 in 2011 for a solar system. Fricker agreed to repay them $15,500 from TEP when the utility paid the rebate on their solar panels.
The panels were installed, though far behind schedule. TEP paid the money to Fricker, but he never paid the couple.
“When you are a senior citizen, and a veteran like my husband, this is a life savings for us that we will never recoup,” Girvan said.
Her neighbor is even worse off, Girvan said, because the neighbor paid Fricker but never saw the solar system installed, she said.
The Girvans can’t collect on the service agreement they were promised because the company is defunct.
“If anything happens to the panels, now they are our responsibility,” she said. “You feel like you are a victim twice.”
Salt River Solar and Wind also had problems with a federal tax-credit program, which is likely the reason the company struggled financially.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, developers were offered grants to cover 30 percent of the cost of solar installations. Normally, developers get a 30 percent tax credit, but the cash grants were meant to kick-start the industry during the economic downturn.
Program rules required developers to complete installations before they could apply for reimbursement. But funding was not guaranteed, and even after systems were built, the government delayed approval of some applications and denied others.
U.S. Treasury records indicate that Salt River Solar and Wind was paid for systems that were never installed. It also was rejected or denied payment for some systems that were placed in service.
Many customers paid their leases up-front, so releasing them from the contract won’t save them any money.
That is the case with Richard Moon. He and his wife own the Moonlight Manor assisted-living facility in Surprise.
They paid about $60,000 up-front for a solar lease with Salt River Solar and Wind.
Moon said the installation took longer than expected, and that the company never delivered the software promised that would help track the electricity production of the system.
He also said that because the company went out of business, he had to call in another company to perform about $500 of maintenance that should have been done by Salt River Solar and Wind.
Potential victims of Salt River Solar and Wind are encouraged to contact Amy Bocks with the Attorney General’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Claims must be submitted to the court by Aug. 14.
Michael Fricker and his wife, Theresa, also were accused in a civil lawsuit in 2012 of committing fraud, and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered them to pay more than $265,000 plus court costs and attorney’s fees.
Court records also show that in 2000, Fricker was convicted in Oregon on a misdemeanor charge of writing a bad check and a felony charge of forgery. Records show he was sentenced to two years’ probation.