(Photo by 64MM via Creative Commons)

Many factors go into figuring out whether a home or business is a good candidate for solar power, from the pitch of its roof to its electricity-use profile.

When someone wants to know their property’s solar potential, they typically turn to a local solar installer, most of which offer free or low-cost site assessments as a way to draw in customers.

And therein lies part of the problem: as informative as the reports can be, installers have a built-in incentive to recommend the products they sell, even when they may not be the best solution.

That’s part of the reason why the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES) this week announced the state’s first third-party, independent site assessment program for solar. For $175, a trained site assessor will inspect a home and provide a detailed, written report on its solar prospects — no sales pitch attached. (The rate for businesses is $235.)

“We want to protect the reputation of solar in Minnesota,” says Laura Cina, MRES’s managing director.

Cina says she knows many ethical solar installers, and some less so. The industry’s reputation could be dinged if installers are overselling benefits or pushing the wrong products.

The program will offer unbiased information on the viability of solar projects, including solar electric, hot water or air heat. Assessors will map the areas with the best sunlight and identify potential obstacles. They’ll also interview participants about their motivations and share advice on energy efficiency investments that might provide better returns than solar.

The third-party assessment program is inspired in part by a now-defunct Wisconsin program. For most of the last decade, participants in that state’s Focus on Energy solar rebate program were required to have their sites reviewed by a certified, independent assessor before they qualified.

“It was decided that it was important to protect the reputation of the solar industry and to protect the customer,” says Nick Hylla, executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association in Custer, Wisconsin, which was in charge of certifying solar assessors under the rules.

The rebate program is overseen by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Gov. Scott Walker appointed new commissioners when he took office, and the board subsequently suspended the rebates and hired a new administrator to redesign the program.

(“It’s been a desert for more than six months now,” says Hylla, with everyone waiting to buy or install systems until the new rebates are announced.)

In Minnesota, the assessment program won’t be mandatory. Still, backers hope it will help guard the industry’s reputation, as well as help solve a more practical problem for installers: dealing with “tire kickers,” says Todd Fink, a solar instructor at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

Solar installers end up wasting a lot of time and money preparing site assessments for people who aren’t serious yet about buying and just want to find out how it would work, says Fink, who previously worked as a solar installer. He says for every one paying customer, his company would have another five or so who mostly seemed interested in free information.

“We’d have a .200 batting average,” says Fink.

The reports were costing his company between $200 and $400 each to prepare. “If somebody doesn’t sign on the dotted line, that expense gets passed on to the next customer.”

Solar installer Charlie Pickard, co-owner of Aladdin Solar in Excelsior, Minnesota, says he has mixed feelings on third-party assessments. He understands the importance of protecting consumers and the industry’s reputation. Still, on-site assessments, which he charges $60 for, have been a good way for him to meet and make an impression on potential customers.

“There’s definitely a value to that,” says Pickard.

Without site assessments as part of his sales and marketing strategy, Pickard worries he would be forced to compete on price alone instead of expertise or relationships.

To be sure, installer assessments aren’t going away anytime soon. The MRES program is up and running in the Twin Cities metro and St. Cloud area. The demand for independent assessments is still unclear, says Cina, but they hope this year to sign up about 100 customers.

Dan Haugen is an Energy Journalism Fellow at Midwest Energy News. Contact him at dan@danhaugen.com.

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