Watch CBS News

What you need to know before investing in solar panels

What you need to know before investing in solar panels
What you need to know before investing in solar panels 04:38

The CBS News Texas I-Team has been looking into complaints about the solar panel industry for the past several months. Read our latest story here.

NORTH TEXAS — On a sunny day in Plano in late February, the panels on Dutch Uselton's roof were hard at work. He tracked the energy they produced and how much money he saved. 

Uselton had the panels installed a little more than a year ago, and so far, he's satisfied. He thinks he got a good deal. 

Over the past several months, the CBS News Texas I-Team has reported on solar panel horror stories involving five-figure debt, faulty equipment and people at risk of losing family homes. 

But even those with horror stories have said it's not the solar panels that are the problem. It's the business practice of many companies selling them. With that in mind, the I-Team set out to find a solar success story. That's how we came in contact with Uselton. 

Solar Savings

Uselton paid $25,000 upfront for his system. This year, it earned him a one-time $7,000 tax credit. 

He's counting on the panels to eventually pay for themselves, but he knows it will be a while. 

"I actually won't get my money back for ten years," Uselton said. "And I think that's important for people to know."

Here's how the solar panel system works: 

When daytime temperatures are high, the panels help power the demand for his air conditioning. When they're low, the panels produce excess energy that's sold back to the power company, earning him credit. And at night or on overcast days, he's pulling from the power grid. 

The result? 

Last year he paid a total of $1,128 for electricity — on average less than $100 a month. The year before, prior to the panels being installed, he paid $1,927, or about $160 a month. 

"It beat what they ... predicted," Uselton said. "Which is good. Every year is going to be different."

He credits his success to working through a co-op. That's when a group of residents interested in solar panels come together to buy as a group. In this case, a nonprofit called Solar United Neighbors helped organize neighbors, educate them on the process and orchestrate bids from solar installers.

The people in the co-op then select an installer, who in turn saves money buying supplies and getting permits for the whole group.

"That lowers the cost to them and then they pass on part of the savings to the group purchase," said Larry Howe, a volunteer with Solar United Neighbors. 

Howe says a co-op is a great way for people who are solar panel-curious to get more information in a lower-pressure environment.

"The questions that you forgot to ask, maybe somebody else is asking," he said. 

Uselton's co-op paid $2.50/watt. The average cost for residential solar panels in Texas is $4/watt.

Solar United Neighbors is currently gathering residents and small businesses for another co-op in Plano. Registration is open until April 30. You can learn more here.

To learn more about Solar United Neighbors in other communities, visit

Interested in Solar? 

Taylor Alexander, the founder of Texas Solar Panimals, says when it comes to installation, a reputable company will make sure your panels are working as they should. 

When the I-Team met Alexander in early March, he was mounting a solar panel system for a home in Kemp. The homeowner originally invested in solar panels years ago, but was unhappy with the results.

"The original install company had put the system on the roof," Alexander said. "Unfortunately, a majority of the panels weren't getting direct south-facing sunlight, so they would benefit from a very small portion of the system."

The homeowner he's helping out, Nicole Flurry, took out a $53,000 loan for her panels. She says she didn't save a dime.

"We ultimately doubled our electric bill versus saving anything," she said. 

To make matters worse, when she wanted to refinance her home a few years ago, she learned the solar company had placed a lien on it — a condition she wasn't aware was in her contract.

"There's a term called grant of security," she said. "If you ever have something that says grant of security, it's a lien."

This confusion is one of the reasons Flurry says she should have hired an attorney to review her lengthy contract before she signed it. She also wishes she would have spoken with a financial advisor to help her secure the promised tax credit she never ended up seeing. 

Larry Howe with Solar United Neighbors encourages all potential solar buyers to get multiple quotes and talk to family or friends who have installed solar panels on their homes.

Uselton's biggest advice is to make sure you can afford solar. 

"If you have to borrow money to do it, don't do it," he said. "The interest that you pay on the loan will make the payback probably go out to 20 years or something."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.