As solar energy interest grows in Omaha, so do scams, misinformation

There's been an increase in solar panel scams
Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 9:53 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The interest in people switching to solar energy to power their homes and cars in the metro is growing.

But with that growth also comes companies and people hoping to take advantage of consumers.

“In the last few years, there’s been a genuine interest from the consumer level on solar,” says Michael Shonka, the owner of Solar Omaha.

Shonka has been helping people install home solar systems for years and says the excitement over solar has been growing.

“These interest levels have increased over lets say the 2000s at a pretty steady rate, and accelerated recently and i think that’s partly due to our consciousness over energy consumption,” Shonka says.

“It is surprising how quickly it has grown,” says Kirk Estee, the Customer Alternative Energy Solutions Manage for the Omaha Public Power District.

In just one year, Estee says they saw a 900% increase in applicants hoping to attach their solar systems to the OPPD grid.

“Two years ago we had about 60 people apply to do solar, last year we had about 600, this year we’re on track to hit 1,000,” he says.

Estee says there are many reasons why people decide to make the switch.

“Only one of which is the payback period, the financial side. Some people like to know that they’re working toward being net zero has a household, some people have an electric vehicle and like to know they’re producing their own energy for their car.”

But with that increase in people seeking to generate their own energy, have come scams and misinformation from companies hoping to take advantage of customers who are just trying to do right by the environment.

“There have been a lot of firms come to town, go into business, take up shop here in Omaha, and there are some very aggressive tactics used by some of them,” Estee says.

Shonka says this happened in the 1980s, too, and now it’s back.

“There’s a lot more sophisticated marketing now with the one-on-one relationship, the internet, these innocuous looking websites offering free info or promising free services when really it’s just a call center for a lead generation program,” he says.

Aggressive tactics from unreliable companies scare people away from environmentally-friendly technology.

“Customers have told me they will get into your kitchen and will not leave until you sign on the dotted line, very high pressure, they are inflated values used for the estimated cost of electricity increases in the future, they will say things like you no longer have an electric bill when there is a customer charge just to have the benefit of being attached to the grid,” Estee says.

Shonka and Estee both say the companies often get customers stuck in a contract they would need to pay thousands of dollars to get out of.

“And what happens is people get into a 20 year loan when they’re upside down from day one with no hope of getting out of it and they’re basically having a higher payment for something that’s not as much value as they were promised,” Shonka says.

OPPD has beefed up its website, pumping it with information and resources when it comes to solar.

Estee says they’ve also included a list of customer-owner trade allies that have agreed to an OPPD code of conduct and training.

“So, when you work with them, you have a much higher chance of having a positive experience,” Estee adds.

Shonka is a member of that list, too.