Many San Antonians purchased and installed solar panels on their rooftops for the first time over the past several years – about 9,200 CPS Energy customers will have taken advantage of the utility’s solar rebate program by the end of February.

But customers like Cathy Leary and others have buyers remorse.

A local company installed a 6.4 kilowatt system, 20 panels, at Leary’s home in Alamo Heights in spring 2016. The documents they provided her said the solar panels would supply “101% of annual electrical use,” zeroing out her electricity bill. She paid $3.60 per watt.

“All along the way … I kept saying, ‘Are you sure we can have solar panels? We have so much shade,’” Leary recalled. She has two large trees on the west and east sides of her house – she used to have a third until the recent hail storm knocked one down. Her panels, especially when the trees are filled with leaves (most of the year), barely get any sun.

She told the Rivard Report Thursday that her system saves her $1-$2 per week.

“They outright lied,” she said.

Leary lives down the street from Jason Pittman, co-founder and president of Go Smart Solar. His company, founded in early 2016, launched an online tool this month that could have saved Leary thousands of dollars, Pittman said, without her even contacting the company.

The SunSmart Tool allows anyone in San Antonio to enter their address and receive a first-glance overview if solar is a good idea for their home or commercial building. The address is given a “Sun Number,” on a scale of one to 100, based on roof type/pitch, shade, and general climate. Most of the scores are based on data collected by a remote sensing method called LIDAR (light detection and ranging).

Leary’s Sun Number? 28. The highest that Go Smart Solar has found in San Antonio so far is 83.

“Our computer analysis of your roof, shade, and climate gives [address redacted] a Sun Number of 28, which doesn’t look like a good location for a solar project. Still, you should talk to us to see if there’s an available option.”

Then SunSmart gives some preliminary estimates on what the average Sun Number is in her neighborhood, how much the system would cost, estimated monthly savings, and environmental impacts.

Screenshot of the SunSmart Tool.
Screenshot of the SunSmart Tool. Credit: Courtesy / Go Smart Solar

“If she had known the right questions to ask, she would have ended up with a very different system,” said Go Smart Solar Co-Founder and CEO Robert Miggins. “It’s always better to be a more informed buyer. Period.”

The company has also commissioned six Sun Scholar informational videos that introduce Go Smart Solar, explain how solar works, and explore other aspects of the industry and what it means to go solar.

The first video, an overview of the company, describes the aggressive nature of some solar installers. The bigger the system, the more they get paid, so some companies will over-build projects to maximize profits.

Go Smart Solar Overview from Go Smart Solar on Vimeo.

Smart, engaged, people fall for it every day across the country as the solar industry booms, Pittman said, which attracts more players to the table.

“It’s a product people are buying for the first time,” Miggins added. “[It’s] jargony, technical, and mysterious with electrons and kilowatt hours and units we don’t normally think about.”

It happened to Leary. It also happened to State Rep. Mike Villarreal who owns a home in the Historic King William District.

After Villarreal’s project received media attention at the Historic and Design Review Commission, Pittman noticed that the amount of proposed panels and the amount of trees on his property seemed pretty high.

“[Pittman and Miggins] were a little concerned,” Villarreal told the Rivard Report. “They wanted to discuss with me more about the system I was having installed because they thought it was being over-designed or over built.”

The company Villarreal was working with proposed 45 panels. After working with Go Smart Solar, they reduced the array to 18 panels, a 4.68kw system. He paid $3.18 per watt. He saves about $70 per month on his electricity bill.

Villarreal is a former legislator and hold degrees in finance. While in the Texas House, he served as Chair of the House Committee on Investments and Financial Services. He still had trouble with the numbers.

“[Installing solar] is a highly technical decision that people aren’t very familiar with,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal was a kind of test customer for Go Smart Solar, which has since smoothed out the process to reduce costs even further. The launch of their new website is the culmination of at least one year of work.

Staff does all the design, engineering, and customer interaction. They purchase locally-manufactured panels and inverters from Mission Solar and KACO Energy respectfully. Once they have a project ready, they give it one of the four solar installers they work with. Miggins estimated that Go Smart Solar has rolled out about 400kw of solar across San Antonio to a couple dozen business and homeowners. They anticipate being able to sell solar systems for under or at $3 per watt this year.

CPS Energy’s $15 million extension of its rebate program slated to begin in February will pay 60 cents per watt. It will include an extra eight- and two-cent incentive if customers select locally made modules and inverters, respectively. That brings the total possible rebate to 70 cents per watt.

Industry, CPS Energy Looking for Solutions

After receiving multiple similar complaints from customers, CPS Energy strengthened its policies over the past year to inform customers and dissuade predatory companies from taking advantage of new solar buyers.

“We want to make sure that there are good sales practices going on in our community – that no one is overselling, that they’re not misrepresenting [solar cost and benefit] information to our customers,” CPS Energy COO Cris Eugster told the board during a program update last month.

Each customer is now required to sign a disclosure agreement which outlines some basic facts, figures, and choices that they should know about before finalizing an agreement with an installer or other solar firm.

For instance, the typical cost per watt for rebated installations in 2015 was between $3.10 and $4. Some were charging $6 to $8 per watt, according to CPS Energy officials.

The disclosure also states that the average 6 kilowatt system saves customers about $80 per month.

Leary signed her contract before the disclosure was required. When I showed her a copy, she said it would have given her pause – would have made her look at the numbers in her contract more.

“Some of those companies coming from the outside may not be aligning with the community or selling too aggressively,” Eugster said, adding that CPS Energy has suspended work with several companies that weren’t complying with the customer disclosure.

CPS Energy is working with local installers to come up with policies to strengthen rules against predatory sales tactics. Currently, CPS Energy has a list of “registered” contractors, but they are not vetted in virtually any way by the utility.

Ben Rodriguez of San Antonio Solar Alliance, a nonprofit industry group, said it’s important to develop regulatory policies surrounding the dwindling rebate program to protect the consumer, local installers, and CPS Energy.

“A lot of people are under the impression that if you are a [registered] installer with CPS, then you have some sort of reputation and legitimacy as a business,” Rodriguez told the Rivard Report. “The disclosure form was a giant step forward … but it wasn’t enough in my opinion.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org