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 email@example.com. 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.
An Apple facility to be used as a data processing plant endured a rooftop fire from solar panels. The building was evacuated and 3 different fire station crews were called to the scene to prevent the fire from spreading inside.
Crews battle fire at Apple facility in Mesa
Officials battled a second-alarm fire at an Apple facility in Mesa on Tuesday morning.
Mesa Fire Department said the fire started shortly before 11:30 a.m. near Elliot and Signal Butte Roads.
The fire appeared to be on solar panels on the roof of the building over a loading dock. The fire did not appear to be burning inside the building itself, officials said.
Mesa firefighters said a second alarm was called partially because the facility is so large. “We also wanted to make sure we get a great deal of resources here in the event that we had to section off this fire and keep it from spreading to different parts of the building,” said Forrest Smith with Mesa Fire. “It gives us the resources and the equipment that in the event this fire took off on us, we could really surround it and keep it from spreading.”
Crews from Mesa, Gilbert and Superstition Fire worked together to get the fire knocked down in 35 minutes.
About 50 employees had to be evacuated and there were no reports of any injuries.
Apple has plans to use the building as a data processing plant.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Read original article at http://www.abc15.com/news/region-southeast-valley/mesa/crews-battling-fire-at-apple-facility-in-mesa
A dental office went into flames because of solar panel malfunctions forcing the dental office and adjacent chiropractic office to evacuate. The fire caused challenges for the fire department because the panels harness so much energy at the roof where firemen usually rely on on ventilation.
Solar panels catch on fire at dentist office in Latham
Fire officials said solar panels on a building may be the cause of a fire Friday morning.
The fire happened just before 10 a.m. on Route 9 just north of the circle. A dental office and a chiropractor’s office are both located in that building and had to be evacuated. Route 9 was closed in both directions.
Authorities said the fire started on the roof, and it was likely caused by a solar panel malfunctioning.
“I heard the boom,” Dr. Jocelyn Tameta said. “So I looked out the window and there’s smoke coming out, and next thing you know, everybody is saying, ‘Get out of the building. The roof is on fire.’”
Tameta’s dental practice is on the second floor of the building. The building owner said the solar panels were installed about five years ago, and they have not had any problems.
“It’s not common,” Steven Kasselman of Kasselman Solar said. “It’s actually very rare.”
Kasselman is the president and CEO of Kasselman Solar. His company didn’t install the panels on the Route 9 building, but he explained that the system in place is older and uses DC electricity, which he said is more dangerous than AC electricity.
“We install what’s called micro inverters, which isolate the DC string to each individual solar panel,” he said. “So essentially, all of our systems only have AC electricity on the roof.”
Latham Fire Chief Thomas Bergin said it was a challenging blaze, and the flames spread into the attic, which meant their plan of attack had to be different.
“There’s a lot of energy in those panels, and of course, they’re on the roof where we need to ventilate,” he said.
Officials said no one was injured, but there was substantial damage to the dental office.
The tenants did have fire insurance, but it’s unclear how long it will take to repair the damage.
Solar companies are using misleading and deceptive promises when advertising. The cost savings and rebates that the companies promise are not finding their way into the consumer’s wallet. One buyer said they “will likely never recoup the money spent for the panels.”
Arizona Solar Customers Complain About Deceptive Marketing Practices
By Peter Fricke
2:31 PM 04/07/2015
Solar companies in Arizona claim they are victims of “slanderous campaigns” by electrical utilities spreading unsupported allegations, but letters from consumers tell a different story.
The Arizona Corporations Commission launched an inquiry last December “to study business models related to solar distributed generation,” inviting interested parties— including consumers, solar panel manufacturers, power companies and interest groups—to submit comments, which are posted on the commission’s website.
Among the earliest respondents was The Alliance for Solar Choice, a coalition of the nation’s largest rooftop solar companies, which filed its response to the inquiry in mid-February.
Adopting a somewhat defensive posture, TASC asserted that Arizona has “the most hostile environment in the country for those in the otherwise blossoming distributed solar industry,” a condition it attributes to “dishonest campaigns” by utilities like Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility.
TASC accused APS of “running slanderous campaigns against the solar industry,” saying the utility has “presented nothing but unsupported claims of alleged malfeasance.”
However, the latest batch of consumer letters, made available last week, reveals numerous frustrations over misleading and deceptive promises from solar panel manufacturers. This suggests that allegations of malfeasance have more support than the group initially believed.
The most common complaints involve promises made by solar companies that installing solar panels would result in significant monthly savings on electricity, and that customers would receive hundreds of dollars per year in rebates and tax credits. In reality, the letters allege, the cost savings and rebates are a fraction of what customers were told to expect, leading many to believe, in the words of one correspondent, that they “will likely never recoup the money spent for the panels.”
The concerns go beyond mere financial considerations. One writer claims that, “shortly after getting the system, there were many birds and pigeons around our home which led to many bird droppings,” and says they cannot afford the $800 that SolarCity charges to bird-proof the system.
“SolarCity should have told us that this would become a problem before they put the system on our house,” the writer argues. “Or they should have included the bird proofing in the cost of installing the system.”
The ACC says that in the course of its proceedings, it has “heard arguments and anecdotal evidence regarding the advantages and disadvantages of business models relating to both the leasing of and purchase of distributed solar electric generation equipment,” and hopes to shed further light on the competing claims through the ongoing inquiry.
Read full article at http://dailycaller.com/2015/04/07/arizona-solar-customers-complain-about-deceptive-marketing-practices/
The rooftop solar panel scam is the latest homeowner fraud. Homeowners are promised to save energy, have a low installation cost, and save on their monthly bills. But instead they are not told about the lien on their property when entering the solar panel lease or the steady increase in payments year after year if the electric utility doesn’t raise the rates.
Roof-Top Solar Panels — the Latest Homeowner Fraud
Friday, 14 Mar 2014 03:46 PM
One man thought he was going to lower his use of electricity and pay less each month by installing solar panels. However, he is now paying more, is stuck in the contract for 20 plus years, and dislikes the eyesore of the panels on his roof. Others who used SolarCity endures shoddy installation and a raised monthly bill as well.
Customers tell horror stories of solar company that gets $422M in tax dollars
February 26, 2014
We all get them — telemarketing callers pushing home solar-energy systems that will save us from rising electric bills.
Most of us generally hang up. But in 2012, Jeff Leeds, who lives in the Northern California town of Half Moon Bay, listened. His 3,100-square-foot home features 91 incandescent bucket lights, a 180-gallon fish tank, three large refrigerator-freezers and a huge entertainment system. His electric bill was averaging $350 per month.
The sales pitch Leeds was hearing on the phone sounded ideal: Lease a system from SolarCity, the nation’s second-largest solar electrical contractor, for a low monthly fee and reap the rewards of cheap electricity.
“For a $600 fee up front, I would pay $182 a month for the next 20 years,” Leeds said. “They have a performance guarantee. If I don’t make enough electricity, they said, ‘No problem, don’t worry, we will write you a check.’ I thought, ‘I’m covered.’”
Tacked on to that would be what the company called a small bill from the local utility company allowing the customer to use the grid and to cover the use of any electricity Leeds drew from the utility rather than from his SolarCity solar panels.
Now, 15 months later, the local utility company has raised its rates and instead of a lower bill, Leeds is pushing $500 a month with no way out for the next two decades. And he has the eyesore of solar panels that cover most of his roof.
“As a customer, you have no say,” Leeds said. “With a solar lease, you are putting the stuff on your roof. You have a signed contract with the devil and you are stuck with the stuff.”
SolarCity looked into Leeds’ case after receiving a call from Watchdog.org and offered this comment: “Mr. Leeds’ system did produce less than we guaranteed last year so he will be compensated for that under his performance guarantee.”
Was Leeds’ case an aberration?
SolarCity has generated a high number of cases of shoddy installation, said Gerald Chapman, building inspector manager for San Mateo County, which includes Half Moon Bay.
“SolarCity seems to be the biggest offender,” Chapman told Watchdog.org.
By contrast, he said, SolarCity’s small business competitors — he called them “the little guy” — “wants to do it right.”
“We pride ourselves on installation quality, but if we do make a mistake, we make it right,” countered Jonathan Bass, SolarCity’s vice president of communications. “We are rated A-plus by the Better Business Bureau, the highest rating they provide. Our work has been inspected and approved by more U.S. building departments than any other solar provider.”
Who is SolarCity?
The Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package created an open trough of cash subsidies, leading to an explosion of solar-energy companies. Some of those — Solyndra is the most prominent example — went bust spectacularly. But such high-profile failures and reports of widespread abuse have done little to dampen entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
With rebates, tax breaks and the steady climb of electric rates, more and more Americans have been signing on for solar. But retail solar technology remains expensive — upward of $20,000 per home.
That’s where SolarCity comes in.
Founded in California in 2006 by Elon Musk — PayPal and SpaceX founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, creators of the luxury electric car — SolarCity leverages a unique business model to make solar more affordable. It leases systems to homeowners, typically for a 20-year period.
SolarCity has accepted more than $11 million in federal stimulus funds to make its business run. But the real public support appears elsewhere. Because SolarCity technically owns the energy systems it installs, SolarCity — not the homeowner — earns the federal tax break intended as an incentive to go solar. So far the company has earned $411 million in such tax breaks. The company also may earn additional income on state subsidies.
If that lease is a financial boon to SolarCity, it may prove problematic for SolarCity consumers. No matter how rapidly solar technology evolves, the SolarCity lease ties each homeowner to technology that is cutting edge only at the signing of the 20-year contract.
“Our approach is to install systems to the highest engineering standards,” SolarCity says on its web site. “SolarCity has assembled one of the most experienced clean-energy project design and installation teams in the world.”
The marketing has paid off. SolarCity claims some 90,000 customers in 14 states, and says it signs a new customer every five minutes. The company says its customers include Home Depot, Walmart and the U.S. government.
SolarCity vs. inspectors
Yet consumer-oriented sites like Yelp and the Better Business Bureau , the organization that rates SolarCity an A+, feature criticism from unhappy customers whose complaints follow a similar theme — shoddy installation, poor customer service and hidden fees. Many of the postings have an almost panic-stricken tone as the consumers plead for some sort of resolution to their nightmarish scenario.
More often than not, the negative comments attract the attention of SolarCity officials, who post resolutions to the various problems. Many of the consumers complain that they have spent months trying to remedy faulty installation, only to receive either continuous boilerplate responses from customer service or no response at all.
One California man got a front-row seat at the conflict between SolarCity installers and municipal building inspectors who are sent to sign off on the system before it is allowed to operate.
“The city came out during installation and an inspector gave them the codes and requirements,” said the consumer, who asked not to be identified. “The city guy told them exactly what he wanted and what was necessary, and they still put in the wrong breakers and the wrong wiring. The inspector came back out and looked at it and said, ‘You guys put the wrong breakers on — I told you guys what I needed for the code.’”
The consumer said nearly three weeks went by with no word from SolarCity. He finally called and talked to a manager who said the system had a design problem.
“I said, ‘What do the designs have to do with the breakers? Why not have the right design from the get-go?’” he said.
In all, he claimed, it took four months to finish.
Four months was blazing fast compared to the experience of San Diego lawyer Andrew Athanassious. He first talked to SolarCity in June 2013, eager to get a system installed on his massive home before a large September 2013 utility rate hike. Despite a contract, Athanassious said SolarCity later told him his roof was “not the right material” and he’d have to pay an additional $7,500.
Athanassious is no building contractor, but he said SolarCity’s installers should have known what they were getting into.
“It’s obvious what kind of roof I have. It’s clay tile. It’s not like you could think it’s anything else,” he said.
That was on Aug. 1. Athanssious said SolarCity virtually ignored him for the next two months. He finally agreed to split the cost of the system with SolarCity because they were still the lowest-priced contractor and because finding another solar company would take too much time. SolarCity finally installed the system in October. Unlike Leeds, subsequent electricity costs haven’t been a problem. Athanassious’ utility bill was $410 per month and now it’s zero. He pays SolarCity $357 per month for a lease, saving about $50 a month.
SolarCity responded: “Mr. Athanassious’ system did require a roof upgrade, and we sourced it for him at the lowest cost.”
But Athanssious has problems that remain. During installation, contractors rewired his swimming pool heater incorrectly when they were working on the home’s electric panel. They still haven’t fixed that, he said. And SolarCity has started tacking on $15 per month to Athanassious’ bill because he refuses to pay via direct deposit, a surcharge hidden in the contract.
Other consumers have been hit with the $15 fee as well, and they’ve complained on Yelp and to the Better Business Bureau.
“When I signed up, I was led to believe that they had online bill paying,” Athanassious said. “When I called them, they said they don’t have online payment capability.”
Stefano Chioetto of Denver has his system installed last February. A building inspector discovered that the installed inverter was incompatible with the utility grid and the system would not operate. For the next 50 days, Chioetto checked with SolarCity on the progress of a replacement part. He said he was given only vague answers like,
“We are doing our best and are committed to fixing your system ASAP,” according to his Better Business Bureau complaint.
“They found out that the inverter they actually needed was very expensive and they had to shop around and had no idea where to find it to fit in their budget,” Chioetto told Watchdog.org, saying he discovered this from an outside solar energy expert that he contacted.
Meanwhile, the summer months had arrived and Chioetto was annoyed that he couldn’t use his panels. After he complained to the BBB, the problem was fixed almost immediately — two months after the building inspector’s discovery.
But now he has a new problem. Chioetto lives in a townhome and shares a roof with his neighbor, who has decided to get solar panels of his own. He discovered that SolarCity installed the panels about 18 inches onto the neighbor’s side of the roof even though the dividing wall is clearly visible even from the ground, both men said.
“It’s very obvious that it’s going over a foot and a half,” said the neighbor, who did not want to be named. “You can absolutely see the property line without going on the roof.”
SolarCity admitted that was a problem.
“Mr. Chioetto had a grid parameter that is unusual in a residential site, and we ultimately found a compatible inverter that could support it, and we are redesigning his system to appease his neighbor and still offer him the same performance,” SolarCity said in its emailed statement.
The neighbor decided against using SolarCity because it kept changing terms of the contract by continuing to reduce the amount of electricity that would be produced. Meanwhile, he says, SolarCity hasn’t fixed the encroachment.
“They said they are researching modules that are smaller, and it’s back-ordered until May,” the neighbor said. “I don’t know if I believe that.”
Read original article at http://watchdog.org/130098/solarcity-horror-stories/
Solar companies are going bankrupt because the solar panel problems won’t stop. In four years, 55 companies closed in the Sacramento area. Constant recalls, unpromised savings, and fear of fire turns buyers away from installation.
Solar Panels Can’t Take the Heat
POSTED 10:48 PM, NOVEMBER 4, 2013
Solar panels are supposed to create energy and save money.
“We were excited about it because so much had been written about solar and how it would reduce our electrical bill,” said Edward Snyder a concerned homeowner.
Roseville was in the process of becoming the largest solar community in the nation, so several hundred families moved into what they thought would be their dream home.
“We basically purchased it because it had solar panels on it,” said Jennifer Everett, a concerned homeowner.
Many of the families soon found out their dream home was, really, a nightmare.
“The first thing that happened was the savings weren’t there,” Snyder said.
Snyder became angry that the $17,000 system he paid for only saved him about $500 a year. After more than a year of fighting, he gave up – until he had a fire.
“The solar system caught fire. The shingles caught fire. It was pretty scary … There was a lot of smoke coming off of that roof,” said Snyder.
The insurance report and investigation revealed that the fire started in the center of one of Snyder’s solar panels. The panel got too hot, fried the wiring and caused the roof to ignite.
“I am totally pissed off, not only at the builder, but the government,” said Snyder.
During Snyder’s solar nightmare, many of his neighbors were also fighting similar battles.
Jennifer Everett and hundreds of others were told three years ago to turn her solar system off because there was a fire risk.
“I have two daughters that are in second grade and I don’t like being in a home where it can catch fire at any point,” said Everett.
Back in June of 2011, Suntech America had a recall of a system similar to what was on Everett’s roof – solar panels that looked like roof shingles. Suntech and the Consumer Product Safety Commission worked to find a solution while homeowners waited in fear.
“I don’t really want to be in a home where I [can’t] go to sleep at night,” said Everett.
Nearly a year later, in May 2012, Everett’s builder Centex sent out a letter stating they had a fix for the panel problem and that repairs would begin immediately.
In July of this year – more than two years after the Suntech recall but before the repair had been completed on all the homes – Everett got another letter from her developer Centex: The fix wasn’t stopping the fires.
Two homes had already caught fire. The letter noted in bold print that they were suspending all repairs and that homeowners should shut down their systems immediately.
Then the neighbor’s house caught fire.
The End of the Road
At their wits end, the Everetts, Snyders and 48 other families contacted an attorney. A class action lawsuit is now currently in the works on behalf of these Roseville communities.
“They bought that specific house because of the solar panels, they wanted the energy savings, they wanted the long term efficiency – and they got something totally opposite. They got a system they can’t use and they’re scared to turn it on because their house may catch fire,” said attorney Matt Schoech.
After Schoech was contacted to fight this battle, he says a letter was sent out telling homeowners that Centrex was going to rip out their system and put in a new, raised panel system.
“I was advised by my attorney not to sign that agreement simply because, if we did that, we are going to release all liability to the builder. If they put those panels on our roof at this point I don’t really trust them,” Everett said.
Some of Schoeh’s clients no longer want any form of solar panels on their roofs – they want their investment back and to move on. Others are excited to have the raised panels installed for free. We tried to contact Centex to ask them about the solar problems they wouldn’t grant us an interview but gave us this statement:
“Throughout this complicated process our top priority has always been to get homeowners solar systems operational as soon as possible. Our goal is to complete the replacement of affected systems by February of 2014.”
Roseville Electric still strongly supports solar; more than 1,300 homes in the community has them. But, the OE-34 panels – the ones causing problems – are no longer allowed to be installed on roofs in Roseville, or California.
“I would tell people to contact the manufacturer, learn how to maintain them and take care of them. There is always risk with anything but we believe it’s relatively safe,” said Vionette McCauley with Roseville Electric.
The biggest problem with solar panels is that many companies are going bankrupt. One report said 55 have closed since 2009, including some of the companies Centex subcontracted to install their solar systems.
It’s important when hiring a solar company to install your system to make sure you verify their insurance. If the company folds, that insurance company will be there to make sure you’re made whole again.
The OE-34 solar panels are no longer aloud to be installed in Roseville or California. Other panels are deemed safe and have been tested in California’s heat to make sure they are safer. It’s important, for whatever you put on your roof, you do your research first.
Read original article at http://fox40.com/2013/11/04/solar-panels-cant-take-the-heat/