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John Erlingheuser, AARP Connecticut’s associate state director for advocacy and outreach, was recently walking his dog when he overheard an exchange between a neighbor and a man at her door.
The neighbor, a woman in her 80s who had lost her husband a few months before, was asking the man, a salesperson for a rooftop solar company, to leave. The salesperson continued to linger. After Erlingheuser heard her ask a third time, he went over to intervene.
“He told me to mind my own business,” Erlingheuser said.
Legislation approved this week by the Energy and Technology Committee aims to rein in such behavior. The bill would hold solar companies more accountable for aggressive or misleading sales tactics by their sales reps. The legislation borrows language from a law passed last year to protect consumers from bad actors among third-party energy suppliers.
“Solar is a valued commodity,” Erlingheuser said. “But the issue is the agents that they hire to do their solicitations for them, whether door-to-door or over the phone. They make representations that simply aren’t true.”
The AARP has volunteers who help their members navigate the third-party energy market, Erlingheuser said. But these days they tend to get just as many questions about solar contracting.
Between January 1, 2019, and March 14, 2022, the state Department of Consumer Protection received 172 complaints related to solar companies, according to agency spokesperson Kaitlyn Krasselt. That’s the equivalent of roughly one a week. The complaints — which are just allegations until investigated — pertained to a variety of issues, including misrepresentation of terms, allegations of roof damage, and non-performance of work, she said.
Solar installers must register with that department, which regulates home improvement contractors under the state Home Solicitation Sales Act.
The industry’s door-to-door sales practices are also subject to a host of other regulations, including federal consumer protection policies and municipal ordinances, said Mike Trahan, executive director of the Connecticut Solar and Storage Association, a business group for the industry.
“I don’t see the need for additional laws and regulations to address this issue,” Trahan said. “We are a highly regulated group. The consumer has an issue, they take it to the DCP, and the DCP is supposed to take action. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
But during a March 8 public hearing on the legislation, committee Co-Chair Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, said that while he wished they didn’t have to consider additional regulation, it seems that some of the companies try to take advantage of people.
“Not all players in the field are equal,” he said. “I wish it was a more self-policing group.”
Under the legislation, all third-party agents selling residential solar systems would be considered “legal agents” of the company they represent. They would have to be classified as employees or independent contractors of the solar company, and receive training from the company.
Companies would have to file the names of all agents working on their behalf with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, known as PURA. They would also have to develop standards and qualifications for sales employees.
All solar solicitations would have to include explanations of the rates, fees, variable charges and terms and conditions.
Any company found to be out of compliance would be subject to civil penalties by PURA.
Kyle Wallace, the senior manager for public policy at Sunrun, a national solar panel company based in California, told the Energy and Technology Committee that a better approach would be to set up a working group to develop “more practical recommendations.”
Mandating that third-party service providers be classified as “legal agents” of their employer is “overly broad” and unnecessary, he said. And giving PURA authority over solar installers on top of the Department of Consumer Protection could cause confusion and duplicative requirements, he said.
Michelle Seagull, the commissioner of consumer protection, echoed that concern. In written testimony, Seagull said that while the department “recognizes the need for additional regulation of sales practices in this industry,” she has concerns that the bill’s current language could result in overlapping regulation and enforcement provisions with PURA.
Trahan, of the industry group, said that after similar legislation was proposed last year, they reached out to the committee and “offered to them our willingness to meet with them to discuss anything they wanted to. We got no takers. So it’s a little surprising to see the bill back again this year.”
The bill never made it out of committee last year. But Erlingheuser said the AARP pushed for it to be revived.
“I think doing nothing is no longer acceptable just because we like the industry,” he said.
A separate provision in the bill pertains to real estate transactions involving leased solar rooftop systems. Solar companies would be required to answer questions about lease terms from any buyer or seller in a real estate transaction within a week of being contacted. Failure to do so could result in the reduction of the lease term by five years, at the discretion of the purchaser.
A spokesperson for CT Realtors, an industry group, said the association has not taken a position on the bill.
But Barbara Ausiello, an agent with Coldwell Banker, in Avon, said she has come across several situations where a buyer has been unable to get the details about a leased system because the solar company doesn’t respond to inquiries.
“I’ve had buyers walk away twice because they couldn’t get enough answers,” Ausiello said.