In the Name of Consumer Protection: What Should Consumers Look For If They Make the Solar Transition?

It seems like everywhere you look, the importance of transitioning to clean energy is being discussed, whether it's at the Paris climate summit or the Presidential debates. Thankfully, the country is making huge strides in cutting carbon emissions and turning to clean, innovative sources of power to do so.

As renewable energy sources become more popular - solar energy, in particular - some homeowners have the option to invest in technology that stand to dramatically change the way our country generates electricity. As one example, distributed generation (DG) in the form of rooftop solar panels has become very popular as a way to cut down on electricity bills and produce cleaner energy. Over the past three years, rooftop solar has experienced 50% annual growth, a sign that power from the sun is here to stay.

We all want to do our part to ensure a safer and more sustainable planet for generations to come. It's apparent that energy is one of the areas in which we are able to make the greatest impact. Hundreds of thousands of people are beginning to transition to solar energy - and more will do so if they have enough wealth. But many consumers simply can't afford the upfront cost of solar panels. Rooftop solar panels can cost between $ 20,000 -$40,000 - close to the typical family's annual earnings ($51,939 in 2014, according to the Census Bureau).

To help supplement some of the cost to consumers, some third-party solar leasing companies are offering financing options that require little or no upfront cost. And while this is good news, there's no question that rooftop solar is still very much a new technology. As with any new product or service, consumers must do extensive fact-finding to ensure that they are making the right choices when it comes to installing these panels on their homes.

For example, some solar companies are misleading customers with ambiguous long-term contracts. Consumer protection watchdogs and the Better Business Bureau are taking notice of an uptick in complaints. Issues stemming from fraudulent business practices, which include misleading consumers about energy output, withholding information and exaggerating the value of the DG system, are all on the rise. It also isn't unusual for DG systems to be improperly installed or for providers not to fulfill contract obligations. For example, some third-party DG providers' fail to maintain or repair the system pursuant to contract terms.

For all of these reasons, consumers must do their homework before making an investment in solar or any other DG system, and our policymakers must make sure that consumer protections are put in place to help manage these issues. State public utility commissions, consumer advocates, state attorneys general and other protection agencies should work together to educate homeowners and set standards in the marketplace. In addition, consumers need to do their own due diligence and read between the lines - all of the lines. If an offer or contract seems "too good to be true", it probably is.

Standards need to be put in place to require third-party DG providers to disclose all information to their customers accurately. Consumers need to know, in clear terms, the energy output, the extent of property alterations needed, and the value of the DG system. Believe it or not, many of these companies are not even regulated by the states in which they do business.

Several recommendations have been made to help protect consumers. Notably, some states are seeking to clearly establish the jurisdiction of their state public utility commissions over solar providers. State officials are reviewing complaints to ensure that consumers can take advantage of clean solar energy fairly and safely.

This is not to suggest that most rooftop solar leasing companies are not law abiding and reputable companies. Nor is it to suggest that these companies are not hard at work providing consumers with abundant and affordable rooftop solar energy. Consumers simply need to "trust but verify." We need to ensure that consumers have as much information as possible before they decide whether to transition to solar. As stakeholders and government leaders, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that information is readily available, comprehensive and easily accessible to consumers.

With more Americans turning to renewable energy sources every day, we need to make certain that all consumers are aware of the bad actors, and make sure that their behavior changes. This way we can ensure that this energy source is a part of our cleaner and greener future for decades to come.

Waikinya Clanton is the National Executive Director of the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women (NOBEL Women) and Founder of Power of the PUMP, a professional development network for enterprising women. Follow her on Twitter at @WJSClanton. The National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women (NOBEL Women) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501c3 organization, based in Washington, DC. Founded in 1985, to increase and promote the presence of Black women in leadership and to serve as the global voice of women on a myriad of issues. Follow NOBEL Women on Twitter at @NOBELWomen1.