The Vermont Attorney General’s office has issued an advisory to solar companies to be truthful in their marketing of community solar arrays.
They are reminding companies that the customers can’t be told they’re buying solar energy if the companies also sell the renewable energy credits to utilities.
Assistant Attorney General Justin Kolber says solar companies must follow the Federal Trade Commission’s guide for environmental marketing.
“It says if you’re selling the renewable energy certificates then it would be quote ‘deceptive’ to represent directly or indirectly that the consumer is using renewable energy. That’s what makes energy renewable is those credits, once those credits are sold it’s a deceptive practice to advertise that the consumer is consuming renewable energy,” Kolber said.
After reviewing the websites of a number of solar companies Kolber says he found differences in marketing, and some sites were more misleading than others. The problems were mostly found in community solar arrays, where companies own the panels and members get a share of the electricity produced.
If the companies then sell the renewable energy credits, called RECs, to utilities, the community solar members are legally getting what’s called null electricity, not renewable or solar energy.
Kolber says the burden is on the solar companies to be clear with customers whether or not RECs are sold.
SunCommon, Vermont’s largest residential and community solar business, does sell the RECs from their community solar arrays. Co-President Duane Peterson says the company is well-aware of the FTC guidelines and all of their marketing materials have been reviewed by legal counsel.
Peterson says SunCommon has 20 community solar arrays with more than 500 members who are saving money on their electric bills.
“I mean, put bluntly: Solar used to just be stupid expensive. A few well-to-do people, bless them, participated. Well, that wasn’t going to move the needle on the climate crisis. We need lots of these things,” Peterson said. “So at SunCommon, our mission was to make this easy and affordable. We offer membership in our community solar arrays at a discount to what that power would have cost from the utility.”
Peterson says getting money from utilities that are required to support clean energy is part of the financing that makes the arrays possible.
But the Burlington-based Vermont Community Law Center disagrees. Attorney Jared Carter says it's investigating whether Vermont's Consumer Protection Act has been violated.
Carter says he’s concerned about more than just what a company’s website says, it’s what the reasonably objective consumer believes.
“I think there are plenty of consumers out there who believe that they are getting renewable energy when they’re going renewable really what they’re doing is in many ways, they are subsidizing the costs of these out of state utilities meeting their renewable energy portfolio requirement,” he said.
SunCommon’s Peterson says the market for RECs puts more renewable energy into the regional grid, and community solar members are helping to make that possible.