Solar Panels: be cautious and skeptical

Rooftop solar panels

Think before you sign! Rooftop solar panels are a long-term commitment that you need to research and think through before someone begins to bolt equipment to your roof. Read this article first.

The 2016 door-knocking solar energy vendors are out in force. They are certain to show up in greater numbers at neighbourhood doors in western Mississauga. I wrote about the things to consider when looking at solar panels on your home roof in the summer of 2015 as well. Click here. Some things to remember:

  • None of these vendors represent the provincial government, or your electricity distributor, regardless of what someone at your door says. Nobody from your electricity distributor (Enersource) or from the Province ever goes door-to-door with this type, or any other offer.;
  • The Province of Ontario has no “free solar” programs. No such vendor is representing the Province of Ontario, the Ministry of Energy or any other branch of the government or your electric utility. The only thing you will be “pre-approved” for is to be eligible to allow a vendor to install something on your roof, and to be liable for whatever the vendor’s contract says you are liable for. My suggestion: not just yet. Not this year;
  • Read what’s here, and use Facebook and Twitter (see below) to forward this post to your friends and personal network. Don’t sign anything before you have:
    • Read the entire contract;
    • Done your own research and homework;
    • Talked with your legal and insurance advisors.
  • The Province of Ontario does not install solar systems, free or otherwise. That is why you won’t find a description of a product or service that Ontario does not offer on the Province’s web site. That type of claim alone ought to raise some alarm bells in whatever sales literature or vendor claims you may have received.

In general, there is no free lunch, and if something sounds too good to be true, it likely is not true.

The installation of solar panels to provide some electricity to both the homeowner and the electricity grid is called microFIT, where the ‘FIT” stands for ‘feed-in tariff,’ which means the electricity grid may, depending on the contract, buy some electricity from you for resale to other electricity consumers. Be sure to read the What you should know section of the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) website before signing an agreement, or spending any money.

What door-to-door vendors are likely to talk about is rooftop solar photovoltaic (“solar PV”) collectors that turn electrons from sunlight into electricity. The price of solar PV equipment has been falling quickly in recent years, and a lot of the equipment now comes from various places in Asia, where it is produced in volume.

Most of the literature, the sales line, and the vendor web sites make assertions that electricity costs in Ontario are going to soar in the years ahead. Ontario has actually already paid most of the bills that most other jurisdictions have not yet faced up to by cleaning up the Province’s generation sources, and refurbishing and adding to the distribution system. The electricity cost issue does not wash.

Types of complaints

I see solar panels in our neighbourhoods, and I have toured homes that have had them installed. Some people have had a satisfactory installation. Others have complained to the IESO, the Ministry of Energy, the Premier and the Peel Police about solar contracts and installations. It is important to enter the contractual relationship with all the information and advice you will need to make the technology work for you. Some of the complaints have included:

  • Companies that have disappeared after taking advance money for installations;
  • Misleading estimates of solar energy revenue generation;
  • Contract holders not being able to access their account information because the installer has (and will not share) the password;
  • As noted above, a misleading statement that a homeowner is “pre-approved” for a contract, or that an installer has an affiliation with the IESO, the Province of Ontario, the Ministry of Energy, or Enersource. The Government of Ontario does not license, certify or regulate solar photovoltaic installers.

Participants in the microFIT program are not covered by the Consumer Protection Act, 2002. The Ministry of Consumer and Government Services has indicated that transactions related to microFIT programs are considered commercial transactions.

Solar PV, paired with another technology that has not yet arrived, economical electricity storage might be a game-changer in the near future, but not just yet. I too have been approached by various vendors, most of them sporting laminated dubious identity cards designed, it appeared, to look like something close to an electrical utility or a distribution card. No such solar PV vendor is from your electricity distributor, or from any branch of the Provincial Government, and none speaks for either of the preceding. There is no longer any such entity as Ontario Hydro, and has not been in nearly 20 years. Some other things to think about:

  • If you permit a vendor to put several thousand dollars worth of solar panels and other gear on your roof and on your property, ostensibly for ‘free,’ then who owns the equipment, and who owns the revenue from any electricity it produces? If you read the contract, it is not likely to be you;
  • Do you know if the roof on your home was designed to support upwards of a ton of extra weight on it? Look in your attic, and see what’s holding your roof together. Are you comfortable adding a lot of extra weight to that? The vast majority of houses here in western Mississauga were not built like my grandparents’ house, with the intent that the space above the top floor would, in fact, be an accessible attic;
  • Who would be responsible if the wind ripped the panels off the roof, or collapsed a portion of the roof? That is a good question to ask of your insurance carrier before allowing a vendor’s contractor to begin bolting things to your roof? The plywood on a lot of our roofs is actually pretty thin. It does what it needs to do, which is to hold roofing tiles in place, but that’s it;
  • Who is responsible for removing the solar panels and re-installing them in the event your roof needs replacing, as every roof does after 15 to 20 years? How long has your roof been in place?
  • What has the vendor told you about the wiring that must run down your wall, and connect to the grid? Any issues you need to know about? Any access on an ongoing basis that the vendor needs? What are your rights and responsibilities?

There are a lot of things to consider before installing solar panels on one’s roof. As of June of this year, applicants must sign a commissioned or notarized declaration form, to help ensure that people understand the program and the microFIT process before signing an agreement, that they have access to their own MymicroFIT online system, and agree to follow the program rules, which are designed to protect the consumer.

From the perspective of a solar vendor, I have a perfect such roof. If the sun is shining at our house, it is shining on our roof. My own stance on solar panels is “Not just yet.” I am not even interested in the contract right now. Before I am ready to look at a serious proposal, there are some additional important pieces of consumer protection and ‘net metering’ legislation that are in process, but not yet in place in Ontario.