Attorney General Ellison sues solar-panel sales companies, lenders for defrauding Minnesota homeowners
Alleges solar companies lied about their relationship with Minnesota utilities, misrepresented financial benefits of purchasing solar panels, and tricked consumers into signing binding sales contracts and loan agreements
April 26, 2022 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today that he has filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court against four Utah-based solar-panel sales companies and three company executives for engaging in deceptive and fraudulent practices in marketing and selling residential solar panel systems that cost Minnesota homeowners anywhere from $20,000 to over $55,000. Attorney General Ellison is also suing several lenders that partnered with the solar companies to finance Minnesotans’ purchases and assumed liability for consumers’ claims and defenses.
The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, names as defendants the companies Brio Energy LLC (d/b/a Pure Solar Energy and Clean Energy Educators), Bello Solar Energy (f/k/a Total Solar Solutions and Brio Solar Energy LLC), Avolta Power, Inc. (Brio changed its name to Bello, then Avolta as its sales practices came under scrutiny around the country), and Sunny Solar Utah LLC (d/b/a Sunny Renewable Energy); company executives Jared Fager, Michael Kaelin, and Alan Whitaker; and lenders Goodleap LLC (f/k/a Loanpal LLC); Sunlight Financial, LLC; and Corning Credit Union Services Company, LLC.
The lawsuit alleges these companies, individuals, and lenders violated several Minnesota state laws against consumer fraud. Attorney General Ellison is seeking restitution for consumers, civil penalties, the State’s costs, and a declaration that the defendants’ conduct violates state law. The lawsuit also asks the court to order that all prospective and current customers be able to cancel their installation contracts and loans in a reasonable period of time.
“My job as Attorney General is to protect Minnesotans from wrongdoing, abuse, and scams. That’s especially important at a time when we’re trying to help Minnesotans stretch every dollar further,” Attorney General Ellison said. “I’m suing these companies because they’ve taken advantage of Minnesotans’ good intentions to save some money for their families and create a cleaner environment for everyone. They deceived consumers into believing that they were partnering with utility companies when they weren’t. They tricked homeowners who thought they were signing up for more information into signing binding contracts. They exaggerated how much money consumers would save on their utility bills than was likely or possible. They told consumers they were automatically eligible for tax credits when they weren’t. When consumers tried to get out of these contracts, the companies threatened them with lawsuits and exorbitant termination fees. And when consumers went through with installation, these companies often did a poor job and didn’t deliver on their promises.
“This is a shameful scam that hurt both Minnesota families and legitimate companies in the solar industry. The recent rapid growth of solar energy in Minnesota is good, and I encourage Minnesotans who thinks it might be right for them to do their research and ask lots of questions. Holding bad actors like these accountable helps every legitimate solar-panel company and every homeowner that wants to save money, improve their home, and do right by the environment,” Attorney General Ellison continued.
“I want to thank every consumer who spoke up and complained to my office. If you’ve been scammed by door-to-door solar-panel sales, don’t feel ashamed and don’t stay silent. Instead, contact my office: we may be able to help you personally, and you will help us help many other Minnesotans like you,” Attorney General Ellison concluded.
Investigation and allegations
The Attorney General’s Office has received dozens of complaints and sworn statements about these companies from Minnesota consumers. The Better Business Bureau has also amassed hundreds of complaints about these companies. The complaints sparked an investigation in which the Office found that since these companies were started, they have falsely represented that their salespeople work for, or are partners with, local utilities despite cease-and-desist letters and other warnings to consumers from utilities across the country. In Minnesota, the solar companies deceived consumers on this point by using Xcel’s logo in advertisements; communicating from deceptive email addresses like email@example.com; and calling their salespeople “energy consultants” and “energy educators,” when in fact their sole purpose was to sell consumers solar panels.
The solar companies also misrepresented the cost savings and other benefits associated with their solar panels, urging consumers to “STOP relying on the grid” and falsely promising that they would never receive another electricity bill once panels were installed. Salespeople were also trained to use high-pressure tactics to make a sale.
Finally, the solar companies tricked consumers into signing binding sales contracts and loan agreements by calling the legal documents “paperwork” needed to receive additional information, determine solar suitability, check consumers’ credit, or communicate with utilities. When homeowners tried to cancel their contracts due to the solar companies’ deception or failure to complete projects consistent with promised timelines, the solar companies threaten them with thousands of dollars of termination fees, collection efforts, lawsuits, and liens.
For those consumers who had solar panels installed, the panels were often not connected to the utility grid as promised, did not always work, and did not generate the utility-bill savings or tax credits that were promised. Often homeowners were forced to start paying back the loans they contracted to install the panels before the panels were working.
High-pressure sales tactics
Along with receiving complaints and sworn statements from dozens of Minnesotans about the companies’ sales practices, the AG’s office reviewed many of the companies’ sales training sessions which show company executives training sales staff to mislead consumers to make a sale.
The solar companies look to hire salespeople who are “willing to do whatever it takes to be successful” and “win.” They describe sales as “going to war” and tell trainees: “We have to be willing to beat people up a bit, you know, give them a little grief.”
To gain homeowners’ trust and meet with them, the companies falsely represent that their salespeople work for or are partners with Minnesota utilities like Xcel Energy. They run ads that contain utilities’ logos and call their salespeople “energy consultants.” This practice has continued despite warnings and cease and desist letters from utilities across the country.
During sales meetings, the companies deceive Minnesotans on the financial benefits associated with purchasing their solar panels. Company executives instruct sales staff to lie or exaggerate the financial benefits of solar panels by, for instance, inflating customers’ understanding of what they are paying for electricity and promising them that if they purchase solar panels, they will never receive another electricity bill. The companies also promise Minnesotans that certain incentives, such as tax credits and utility rebates, are automatic, when in fact, some people don’t qualify for these incentives. This can add thousands of dollars to the expected cost of homeowners’ solar panels.
These solar panels are a big investment: they cost anywhere from $20,000 to more than $55,000 and many Minnesotans have to take out a 20-year loan as they cannot afford to pay for them out of pocket. When homeowners say they need time to think about the decision, Brio pressures them and tricks consumers into signing binding contracts that allow only three days to cancel. Executives train sales staff to characterize these binding legal documents as “paperwork” and keep the process “smooth” so as not to raise red flags.
The companies understand that elderly individuals especially may be hesitant to sign a contract and loan that may outlive them. Brio founder Jared Fager trained salespeople on tactics to use to make the sale when an elderly person raises the concern that “I’m going to die soon.”
After consumers contract with one of these companies, they often fail to complete solar projects within promised timeframes, ignore state and local interconnection requirements, and falsely blame Minnesotans’ utilities for its delays. When homeowners try to cancel contracts, the companies threaten them with legal action and send them invoices for thousands of dollars.
Tips for consumers
Attorney General Ellison encourages Minnesota homeowners and consumers who are interested in installing solar panels to carefully research the costs and benefits of residential solar panels, check online for information about specific companies, get information from sellers in writing, and carefully review all documents before signing. The Minnesota Department of Commerce webpage “Guidance for planning and installing your own solar energy system” and the Better Business Bureau publication “A Consumer’s Guide to Going Solar” both offer comprehensive, and similar, tips to consumers who are considering solar.
The Attorney General’s Office’s publication “How to Spot a Scam” provides Minnesotans with the common characteristics of scams to look out for, several of which have been common in in these companies’ high-pressure sales tactics.
Attorney General Ellison urges Minnesota consumers to report their concerns with the solar companies or lenders by submitting a complaint online or by calling the Attorney General’s Office at (651) 296-3353 (Metro), (800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota), or (800) 627-3529 (Minnesota Relay).