Hidden camera: how to spot a solar scheme

If it's hard to imagine solar panels on nearly every Georgia roof, remember it wasn't long ago people laughed about the idea of computers inside nearly every Georgia home.

A new law allowing homeowners to lease those solar panels rather than buy them is expected to generate big sales…. but also big complaints.

State regulators predict that new law will attract solar power marketers who use sales gimmicks to fool the consumer.

Little did they know the FOX 5 I-Team was already on the case.

Our hidden camera visit with Solar Sale USA captured their national sales director saying this to our undercover producer:

"Depending on your size family, your consumption and what your lifestyle is, somewhere between there and you'll probably zero out on your electric bill."

That's what the solar salesman said - no electric bill if you buy his system. Wouldn't that be nice?

Wouldn't that be… impossible?

"There's great advantage to all that, to having rooftop solar, but that's not going to be the end of all ends," said Georgia Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise.

Earlier this month, Wise wrote an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, worried about rosy promises Georgians may soon get from solar power marketers.

A new law allows homeowners to lease those solar arrays, making them far more attractive than paying as much as $40,000 up front. Many homeowners can claim up to 30% of that cost as a credit on their federal taxes.

But Wise says even solar customers will still get a power bill for those cloudy days or at night when solar isn't generating any juice.

"So there's no way you can zero out your electrical bill without spending a lot of money for backup generators and batteries and things like that," asked FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.

"He's going to have to have a backup source of generation," warned Wise.

That's not his only concern.

For at least one customer, Solar Sale USA provided an estimate justifying solar's initial big cost because standard electric rates are expected to jump 10% each year.

Wise calls that deceptive marketing too.

"It hasn't been the case," said Wise. "It's been about two percent."

He's talking an annual average over the last 30 years. Last year, electric rates jumped 4 percent in the south.

And that's the true solar scheme. If a company says electric rates are going up 10% a year, then the cost of solar seems that much more attractive, with your payback coming in as little as seven years. But if they tell you it's going up 2% a year, it could take at least 10 years to make back your investment.

When the Solar Sale USA marketer met with the undercover FOX 5 I-Team producer, he predicted electric rates would be jumping even higher.

"I think 30 percent. (30%. Wow.) And if you do an amortization even at 15%, it's pretty big."

Thirty percent? 15%? Turns out it's the same salesman who told another customer electric prices would be jumping 10% a year. But nowhere does he use what the PSC says is the true number: an annual average of around two percent. Solar may eventually be free... but electricity is still relatively cheap.

"My return on investment is going to be a lot longer than I thought it was going to be," said Solar Sale USA customer Stephen Kushins.

When the salesman said goodbye to our undercover producer, the FOX 5 I-Team was outside to say hello.

"Why are you saying 10% when it's only been, what, two percent average in Georgia over the last 30 years?" asked Randy.

"It has?" said a surprised Solar Sale USA's Roger Spice. "Where did that come from?"

"The Public Service Commission. Stan Wise," replied Randy.

We showed our hidden camera video to commissioner Wise.

"You make this prediction that there are going to be people like this. Now you see it on video," Randy pointed out.

"I wouldn't have expected it so quickly," Wise said.

"So 10 percent would be a total exaggeration in your mind?"

"I absolutely believe that. Even in the worst case scenario."

"What about 30 percent?"

"30 percent is outrageous. It's just absurd," said Wise.

Of course, there are many Georgians like Carmie McGuire thrilled with how their rooftop solar is working. To figure how long it would take to make back her $11,000 investment, Alternative Energy Southeast projected the rise in electric rates at 3.78%, very close to last year's electric rate increase.

"Power bill's been pretty awesome," she said to Alternative Energy Southeast owner Montana Busch. "Our last power bill was 15 bucks."

She's fine knowing, because her panels are not in the direct sun, it may take 14 years before she starts using truly free power.

"I think a lot of people say oh, there's no way we can do it, or it's overwhelming because it's new," said McGuire. "You'll see it actually makes sense."