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How is Illinois protecting consumers from solar energy scammers? Questions remain

How is Illinois addressing consumer concerns over solar installers?
How is Illinois addressing consumer concerns over solar installers? 02:50

CHICAGO (CBS) --  A salesperson who showed up on Ray Covarrubias' doorstep back in October persuaded him that going solar would save money in energy. Metal rails were installed on the rooftops of his houses in Elk Grove Village—and thousands of dollars were put down—but the solar panels that were supposed to be mounted on those rails never came.

The family is out more than $100,000 in what they call a solar scam, and the company they dealt with was on a list provided by the State of Illinois as part of its solar energy program.

Questions remain as to who is monitoring these solar companies at the state level. With more companies popping up and salespeople showing up on doorsteps, who is making sure they're legitimate? How can consumers protect themselves, and what happens when a complaint is filed?

"We handed them checks for all three properties for over $100,000, and they never came back," Covarrubias said.

The company Covarrubias and his family trusted was PSG Energy. They found the company on a list provided by the state through the Illinois Shines program—even though it turned out PSG Energy is not registered to do business in Illinois.

So how are they on a list from the state? That was one of the questions CBS 2 asked the agency overseeing solar in Illinois—the Illinois Power Agency.

The Illinois Power Agency would not sit down with CBS 2 for an interview. The reason, as stated in an email from Director Bruce P. Granahan, was that given ongoing litigation in which the agency is involved, sitting for an interview would be too informal and would not be "prudent or wise."

The agency, instead, would only answer questions in writing.

A spokesperson with the state said a company can be on the power agency's list as a "designee," which is different from an "approved vendor."

An approved vendor submits project applications to the state and receives direct incentives, while designees do not. Designees play other roles, such as sales, marketing, and installation, and do not receive incentive payments from the program.

Still, with three formal complaints filed against them, and no state registration, how was PSG Energy on the list? There has been no clear answer, but CBS 2 was told the state is investigating.

"People in Illinois and across the country are getting scammed, and it's a problem I don't think a lot is being done about," said Covarrubias.

Does the state have anything in place to protect solar customers and prevent scams? A spokesperson for the Illinois Power Agency shared the program's Consumer Protection Handbook, and said they refer complaints to the Illinois Attorney General.

As for concerns the state isn't doing enough, the power agency said they "take consumer protection very seriously," and take "swift action" against those who are 'non-compliant.'"

But again, PSG Energy is still being investigated four months later.

"There hasn't been any communication with me," Covarrubias said.

The state provided written responses to CBS 2's questions.

In a statement, the Illinois Power Agency said:

"The Illinois Power Agency takes consumer protection very seriously and works diligently to ensure positive experiences for Illinois residents and businesses seeking to go solar. Based on the 3 complaints received, the Program Administrator issued two Notices of Potential Violation (NOPVs) to PSG LMTD, a registered Designee with the Illinois Shines Program, and included 02 Boo Inc., an unregistered entity, on the second NOPV, and neither responded to the Notices. The first NOPV was issued on February 26, 2024, to PSG LMTD, and the second NOPV was issued to both PSG LMTD (and 02 Boo Inc.) on March 21, 2024. These NOPVs were issued by the Program Administrator for failing to comply with state law, misrepresenting its affiliations and/or identity, failing to register as a Designees with the Program under its d/b/a, and performing distributed generation installations without being properly certified by the Illinois Commerce Commission. As outlined in the Program's Consumer Protection Handbook, we take swift action against firms who are non-compliant with our consumer protection requirements. On Friday, May 10, 2024, the Program Administrator issued a Warning Letter to PSG LMTD (and 02 Boo Inc.) for violating Program requirements regarding responsiveness to the Program Administrator, Approved Vendor/Designee registration, requirements surrounding required certification for distributed generation system installations, business registration in Illinois, and misrepresentation of affiliation. Should the entities not respond, the next step will be a suspension of both entities from the Program. 

"We are frustrated by this situation and feel terribly for the customers who have been negatively impacted by PSG LTMD's deceitful business practices. We are working diligently to investigate and take necessary actions against PSG LMTD. Based on complaint rates observed through the program and customer feedback, Illinoisans should know that PSG LTMD's conduct is not indicative of the standard customer experience when purchasing and installing a new solar project. The program has successfully processed over 45,000 new project applications since 2022, and solar energy has saved Illinoisans millions of dollars since the launch of Illinois Shines in 2019."

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