TEXAS — Families across Texas say a Houston-based solar energy company is preying upon the elderly and disabled, getting them to sign long-term payment plans for solar panels they can't afford.
"They go door to door selling to people who are on their deathbeds," said Terry Blythe.
Houston-based solar energy company, Sunnova, they say, misled their elderly and disabled relatives.
"He had been being treated for dementia," said Samantha Crowther, of her father.
"She could not see. She could not hear well," said Kimberly Guidry-Williams of her mother.
"He was starting to have Alzheimer's," said Ben Figueroa of his brother.
"Completely disabled, couldn't walk, he couldn't really even sign his name," said Blythe of her father.
Their family members, they say, were put on 25-year payment plans for solar panels they couldn't afford and would most likely never live to pay off.
"They definitely took advantage of my mom in the state she was in. And then, she died 6 months later," said Guidry-Williams.
The debt, in the tens of thousands of dollars, has in many cases fallen on them now.
"One guy was telling us, 'No, you have to pay. And, if he can't pay, then you guys are gonna have to pay. Your family members are gonna have to pay'," recalls Sara Essoufi, who tried resolving her uncle's debt.
Sunnova uses a third-party network of salespeople, but in a statement said, "All customers undergo a rigorous contract validation process whereby we review each contract and verify the customers' identity…to ensure the customer understands the contract terms and still wishes to proceed."
The company also said it does not put liens on customers' properties for lack of payment, but it does file a similar legal notice, known as a UCC-1.
Customers' families say, when their loved ones die or move into long-term care, that filing doesn't outright prevent them from selling their property to help pay for medical care and funeral services, but it does make it very difficult to find a buyer.
The Texas Attorney General's Office has received dozens of complaints about Sunnova.
The Better Business Bureau has received more than a thousand and even issued an alert warning of deceptive sales practices, poor customer service, and other issues.
Sunnova says the complaints come from a small percentage of its 386,000 customers, and none of it has stopped Sunnova's growth, which has come with help from the federal government.
Sunnova last September received a 3 billion dollar partial loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy.
Sunnova says in doing so, "the government has not provided Sunnova with any funding" but "provides assurances to lenders they will be paid back."
If the loans it makes to customers do fail, "Sunnova, not the taxpayer", it writes, will take the "first loss".
Still, the DOE's announcement called it the "single largest commitment ever made by the federal government to solar power" and some are troubled by the news.
"Is that another slap in the face? Yeah, it is," said Blythe.
Many customers allege in complaints that they were told they'd pay nothing out of pocket because of the government's involvement.
"It was being paid by the city of DeSoto because they received a federal grant," a resident told the Texas Attorney General in her complaint.
"The government was providing solar panels to those who qualify for no charge," said aTarrant County woman in her complaint.
"If you give your name, as 'the government', to this company, it really makes consumers think, 'Oh, it's fine. It's great. The government is backing it," said Guidry-Williams.
"I mean, with a Google search, I could find all kinds of stuff that should have stopped that loan," said Blythe.
Energy market expert Ed Hirs said it's no wonder customers didn't understand what they were getting into.
"These contracts should not be 59 pages. They shouldn't be so involved that you need a degree from Yale to figure it out. I have a degree from Yale and I can't even figure it out," he said.
With the government's involvement, he believes there could be even more confusion.
"They can always say, 'Hey, this isn't a big deal because they're backed up by the government," he said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy said, it "takes seriously its role as a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars, holding all borrowers accountable to ensure they operate with integrity and the high standards the American people expect. DOE's Loan Programs Office is working with American companies like Sunnova to accelerate investments in the industries of the future, raise industry standards, and ensure workers, consumers, and communities benefit from our historic transition to a clean energy future."
The DOE's expectation is that the loan guarantee won't cost it and taxpayers a penny, predicting it would take a significant economic downturn for it to be left on the hook for any customers defaulting on their loans.
It also put conditions on the deal requiring, for example, that Sunnova's contract with a customer be written in the same language that the sales pitch was made in.
Its involvement, it hopes, will help customers.
Some customers remain skeptical.
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