DENVER — With so many sunny days, Colorado is the ideal place to take advantage of solar energy. But buyer beware — solar company issues are some of the most common complaints in the Contact Denver7 inbox.
When one company's name kept showing up, Denver7 consumer investigator Jaclyn Allen went to work to shine some sunlight on the problem.
As a high school math teacher, Elizabeth Tarbutton thinks about the next generation all the time.
"I love the idea of solar panels," Tarbutton said. "We have the programmable thermostats, we have enrolled in the saver switch with Xcel, anything that we can do to save energy we do."
When she and her husband bought their home in Thornton from the builder, it came with 18 solar panels and a lease with Sun Street Solar, which was later bought by the Houston-based solar company Sunnova.
For the first few years, they had no problems.
But more than two years ago, Tarbutton noticed one of her solar panels wasn't working and reached out to Sunnova. She said it took more than a year of calls and a complaint to the Colorado Solar and Storage Association to get a response.
"Since then, they have made at least 11 service appointments and two-thirds of the time they don't show up and don't even call us to tell us that they're not showing up," said Tarbutton, who said the technicians don't know what to do and don't have the necessary parts. "Two years later, the panel is still broken."
Randy Stutz feels her pain. His home in Thornton also came with solar, and when three panels broke last year, he said it took more than a year for Sunnova to replace them, and even then it was only after Stutz started tweeting at the CEO.
"He was saying, 'This is how great we are, and this is the great things we're doing for the world and the environment.' And I would just say, 'it'd be great if you had customer service too,'" Stutz said. "They seem to want to sell a lot of solar systems, but they don't want to service them."
"The company currently has an F rating with the BBB," said Leah Napoliello, vice president of investigations and public affairs with the Better Business Bureau of Houston, South Texas.
The BBB has issued an alert for Sunnova, citing a pattern of complaints including deceptive sales practices, poor customer service and technicians who do not arrive as scheduled.
"Oftentimes the appointments are canceled. The technicians are not able to come out and have to be rescheduled again and again," Napoliello said. "And it can take weeks and weeks and also sometimes even months, in some cases. So it can be a very bad situation for people who are already paying for the solar panels every month, and just not getting their issues corrected or repaired."
Contact Denver7 reached out to Sunnova, and while the company declined an on-camera interview, in a statement a spokeswoman addressed the BBB alert, saying in part that the company has "implemented internal measures to proactively identify areas for improvement."
As an example, the company is "adding new state-of-the-art customer call centers in Houston and Puerto Rico."
In Tarbutton's case, Sunnova points to "supply chain constraints." The company stated that her system is operating correctly and that "almost all of her concerns have been successfully addressed."
However, Tarbutton said she has done the math and not only is the panel still not working, but her Xcel bill is hitting $300 to $400, which does not add up.
"So the nerdy high school teacher that I am, I've tracked the kilowatt hours that we buy," she said. "Anything that we can do to save energy, we do. It does seem that the only thing we can't rule out is that the solar array is producing energy that we can't consume."
While Sunnova has claimed it will make repairs, Tarbutton said she no longer has faith in the company and wants to terminate the contract. However, in a recent letter, the company claimed the contract is still "valid and enforceable."
"There are no consumer protections in this industry," Tarbutton said. "As long as you've signed a contract, they just have all the power, and we have none. And people need to know that."
Editor's note: Denver7 seeks out audience tips and feedback to help people in need, resolve problems and hold the powerful accountable. If you know of a community need we can address or have a story idea for our consumer investigates team to pursue, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 832-7777. Find more Contact Denver7 stories here. You can also use the form below to request help from Jaclyn Allen and the Contact Denver7 Team.