More and more, Florida homeowners and businesses are installing solar panels on their rooftops. Not only does Florida’s recent uptick in solar construction mean more local jobs, lower energy bills, and reduced carbon emissions, it also means that at least some unscrupulous salespeople and contractors will attempt to exploit unwitting consumers. Some misbehavior is to be expected in any line of business, but the solar industry has a markedly low incidence of consumer complaints according to the Better Business Bureau. If you’re thinking about going solar, you should be proactive and know what you’re signing up for.
Generally speaking, the solar industry is characterized by high-quality contractors who are passionate about delivering value to their customers and building solar power’s reputation in their communities and across the country. Even so, solar consumers should be just as prudent with solar contractors as they are with any other home-improvement or construction contractor, and the same state and federal consumer-protection laws apply. For example, solar contractors are subject to the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Florida’s Deceptive & Unfair Trade Practices Act, as well as the complaint-resolution functions of the Better Business Bureau and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Even though complaints against solar contractors are relatively rare, and even though numerous agencies and laws provide protection to consumers, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and anyone considering putting solar panels on the roof should take some commonsense steps to ensure a pleasant solar experience:
- Hire only a licensed contractor. A good solar contractor is not only licensed by the State of Florida, but the contractor is also certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (“NABCEP”). Steer clear of solar contractors who do not have at least these two credentials.
- Look up the contractor on the Better Business Bureau website. Many Florida solar contractors are accredited through the Better Business Bureau, which means that they are committed to best practices and have made themselves accountable to the Better Business Bureau’s reporting system.
- Get at least three references of the contractor’s previous work.
- Get at least three bids from different contractors, and don’t go straight for the lowest price. Remember, you get what you pay for, so be sure to compare other factors in addition to price.
- Make sure the contractor’s bid is in writing and all the terms are clear to you. As with any substantial home improvement, it is worthwhile to have a lawyer look over the documents before signing anything.
- If you decide to make a down payment, pay only a small percentage of the total price, and don’t let payments get ahead of the progress of the work. Don’t make final payment until you are completely satisfied, and never make any payments in cash.
- The foregoing considerations should provide ample protection, but in case something comes up, keep all the documents associated with the project.
Know What You’re Signing Up For
For a long time, solar was expensive (by any measure), and the high costs that used to characterize the solar industry made it difficult for homeowners and businesses to justify outright owning the solar equipment. As a result, most solar companies offered financing through an instrument called a long-term power purchase agreement (“PPA”) under which the solar company owned the solar array (solar panel installations are commonly referred to simply as solar arrays or solar systems), and the customer paid for the power by the kilowatt-hour, typically for at least twenty years.
But the heyday of the PPA is quickly coming to an end. Since the cost of solar has dropped so precipitously, solar is now more affordable than ever, and customers are either paying cash for the systems or financing them through solar loan documents, much the same way one purchases an automobile through a loan. Whether by paying cash or taking out a loan, people are choosing to own the system instead of signing a PPA. Consequently, solar companies are offering dealer financing that allows customers not only to take advantage of long-term energy savings, but also to claim a tax credit equal to thirty percent of the solar array’s cost. As with any debt instrument, it is important to read the loan documents carefully and consult a lawyer before signing.
Both the PPA and the solar loan are advantageous financing tools where they are available. Florida is one of only four remaining states that do not allow PPAs. Florida law still prohibits anyone but your local utility from selling you electricity. Florida electric customers have always had the right to self-generate, that is, they have always had the right to produce electricity in their homes and businesses for their own consumption, and nothing now or on the horizon suggests that this bedrock right, ingrained in long-standing Florida law, will in any way be diminished or modified. Florida law even protects that right against unreasonable homeowner association restrictions.
Although some have argued that Florida’s antiquated prohibition on PPAs protects utilities’ shareholders more than electric customers, the PPA model is becoming less and less relevant as the cost of going solar continues its spectacular free fall and more homeowners and businesses across the country opt for directly owning the solar array, rather than the solar company owning the system. Still, Florida could join the rest of the country (and the Twenty-First Century) and allow PPAs. Then consumers would have a broader range of options.
In the early days of solar, consumer-protection concerns arose around ensuring that consumers understood that signing a PPA meant that the solar company—and not the homeowner—would own the solar array. Also, for some homeowners, a PPA might be an inappropriate financing tool because when PPAs were less understood, they added wrinkles to later selling the homes, since some home buyers did not want to assume the contracts with the solar companies. Consumer education is key, and the Solar Energy Industries Association took the lead on ensuring that its member companies adopted practices to make sure the customer selected the financing tool that was right for the customer.
As solar power proliferates in the Sunshine State, consumers can be reasonably confident that solar companies will operate ethically in marketing and performing their services, but observing some commonsense precautions and knowing what you are signing up for go a long way toward ensuring that going solar is a pleasant experience.
Tim Hughes is an attorney in the Solar Industry Practice Group at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, where he monitors solar market trends and regulatory developments in the Sunshine State. To learn more, please visit http://www.slk-law.com/Industries/Solar.
 The Public Service Commission’s latest report shows a grand total of 11,600 solar arrays that were interconnected in 2015, and representatives of Florida’s investor-owned utilities testified that since 2015, they’ve seen an increase in customers’ solar interconnections. Fla. Pub. Serv. Commn., Interconnection and Net Metering of Customer-Owned Renewable Generation 2 (July 21, 2016) [hereinafter Solar Report]; Fla. Channel, Web Video, 9/14/16 Ten Year Site Plan Workshop at 34:27, 55:31 (Sept. 14, 2016). When Commissioner Julie Brown asked Duke Energy Florida’s Director of Integrated Resource Planning, Ben Borsch, what percentage of Duke’s customers used solar, he replied that the number was “quite small. It’s . . . significantly less than one percent at this point. On the other hand, it’s also growing very rapidly. I think we’ve seen more than a doubling in the last year. So we’re still sort of in the infancy, but we are anticipating and already experiencing a very rapid growth rate.” Id. at 34:27. Florida Power & Light’s Senior Manager of Resource Assessment & Planning, Dr. Steve Sim, responded to the same question, citing the 2015 number as “roughly 4,250,” and FPL is seeing a “steady increase.” Id. at 55:31. The 2015 number was indeed 4,250 out of 4.7 million customers in FPL’s service territory; this means that customer-sited solar accounted for only nine hundredths of one percent of all of FPL’s customers. Solar Report at 1; FPL, Ten Year Power Plant Site Plan 2016-2015 sched. 2.3 at 40 (Apr. 1, 2016) (reporting 4,775,382 total FPL customers in 2015).
 Lee Peeler, Council of Better Bus. Bureaus, Panel Discussion, Customer Acquisition: Learn How to Play by the Rules, (Las Vegas, Nev. Sept. 13, 2016). Out of 870,000 consumer complaints nationwide, roughly 1,000 related to solar. Id. No information was provided on the number of those complaints that were resolved to the customers’ satisfaction. The Solar Energy Industries Association “endorses the [Better Business Bureau] Business Partner Code of Conduct and incorporates its terms as part of the [Solar Business] Code.” Solar Energy Indus. Assoc., SEIA Solar Business Code § 1.4 (accessed Oct. 2, 2016).
 See e.g. Allison Gatlin, Investor’s Business Daily News, SolarCity, Vivint Solar Loans Will Zap Leases By 2017: Credit Suisse (June 6, 2016) (reporting that zero-down, low interest, medium-term loans had outstripped PPAs in 2016 and were on track to become the predominant solar financing instrument).
 U.S. Dept. Energy, Third Party Solar PV Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) (March 2015) (showing five states that affirmatively ban PPAs). In April 2015, Georgia passed a law to allow PPAs. E.g. Leon Kaye, Georgia Legislature Passes Landmark Solar Bill (Apr. 1, 2015).
 See e.g. P.W. Ventures, Inc. v. McNichols, 533 So.2d 281, 284 (Fla. 1988) (acknowledging that self-generation falls outside the Public Service Commission’s jurisdiction).
 Companies whose operations at one time depended solely on the PPA model have recently set up shop in Florida despite the unavailability of the PPA model in the state.