Ryan was scrolling on Instagram when he ran across a verified account he figured must be run by a celebrity; the young man in it showed off a new Lamborghini, a Florida penthouse, and videos of himself benching 225 pounds. He had gotten rich, he told followers, by selling solar panels.
Curious, Ryan messaged the man, who claimed he could teach others his success; within 48 hours, Ryan was invited to Florida, to stay for free in one of the man’s apartments while he learned the art of solar sales.
Within a few days, he was out knocking on doors, within a year he had made around $350,000. But something started to gnaw at Ryan as he knocked on doors in small Florida towns alongside other men from out of state, staying in free luxury Airbnbs while they sold rooftop solar. About 90% of what he was being taught to say was a lie. He wasn’t working in conjunction with the electric company. The loans the homeowners were taking out didn’t have low interest rates. The solar panels weren’t always being installed by professionals who knew what they were doing. Ryan, who was 23 at the time, eventually quit and moved home, but he says new people were coming in all the time. (Ryan didn’t want his real name used for the story because he’s still in sales and wants to get into Harvard for business school.) “It’s this whole sales bro culture on Instagram,” he says. “You can make so much money.”
The U.S. needs to install 1,000 gigawatts of solar power by 2035 to be on track to decarbonize its electrical grid, and pushed by both a growing recognition of the urgency of fighting climate change and by well-publicized incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, not to mention rising costs of residential electricity, Americans are shelling out money for solar panels. The U.S. added 6.4 gigawatts of small-scale solar in 2022, the most ever in a single year, according to the Energy Information Association.
But the job of convincing Americans to sign up for solar panels on their rooftops has, in many cases, been hijacked by people with little knowledge about how renewable energy works, and who are just trying to make as much money as possible while the rush is on. They are fanning out across the country, knocking on doors, calling phones, and pitching homeowners on the benefits of solar power, sometimes ignoring Do Not Call lists or No Soliciting signs. Many of these salespeople are using misleading tactics to sell homeowners on solar—tactics that they learn from self-proclaimed sales experts online—and because they are independent contractors who don’t work for a specific solar installer, they’re getting away with it. As a result, they’re making thousands of dollars per sale, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, often while targeting elderly and low-income consumers with their sales pitch.
More From TIME
“Solar is ground zero for consumer fraud right now,” says Andrew Milz, a consumer attorney based in Pennsylvania. “The industry is just littered with bad actors trying to put solar on as many roofs as possible as fast as possible.”
No Barrier To Entry for Salespeople
The root of the problem is this: there is no license or training required in most states to sell solar; you don’t even have to work for a specific solar company to get started. Instead, installers farm out sales to networks of freelancers working solely on commission. These “dealer networks” negotiate with installers something called a “red line”—essentially a price at which they need to sell the solar system, for example, $2.50 a watt. If salespeople are able to convince the homeowner to pay much more, say $4 a watt, they pocket the difference, which can end up being thousands of dollars per sale. With so much potential money on the table, salespeople are motivated to make big promises that might not end up being true.
“The way the system is designed really incentivizes bad behavior,” says Vikram Aggarwal, the CEO of EnergySage, a solar services marketplace.
The untruths salesmen—and they are mostly men—peddle are often very similar. They say that you can get free solar panels from the government. (You can’t. There are tax credits available but they only take off about one-third of the price of panels, and are only for people who owe taxes.) They say you can eliminate your energy bills and become independent from the power company. (This is unlikely without a solar battery, which is a significant additional cost: most homes will still be connected to the electrical grid and charged a monthly fee.) They say the panels will be hooked in up a matter of weeks (also unlikely), that they work for the local utility (probably not) and that they are not even actually selling anything but are instead “energy consultants” whose job is to look at customers’ utility bills and see if solar is a good fit for their home (if a free “energy consultant” that you didn’t request shows up at your house, be skeptical).
The “bro” culture on social media appears to be fueling some of this fraud, by recruiting young men to do whatever it takes to make a sale. “You don’t have to lie—I’m not saying that by any stretch,” says Jordan Belfort, the real-life Wolf of Wall Street, who served 22 months in prison for fraud and other related financial crimes, on a video in which he sits in front of men sipping cans of Red Bull and RockStar energy drinks, teaching them how to sell solar. “But what you need to do is have the best version of the truth.”
The sheer amount of money available in solar sales is attracting many people with no experience in renewable energy. “Your teachers lied to you, this is how you get rich,” says one salesman, in a video where he claims to make $7,000 in one sale. One TikTok video tells people they can make six figures in just four months, get a free flight to Dallas, and a free apartment if they come and sell solar there in what’s called a “sales blitz,” which is essentially when people spread out to sell in a focused area. Some of these blitzes “are like the first half of the Wolf of Wall Street, with visits to strip clubs and liberal use of cocaine,” says one man, who was hired to film these barrages and who did not want his name used because his production company is still working with sales firms.
The gurus online don’t talk much about the benefits of renewable energy; instead they highlight how much money salespeople can make. They also advertise a frat-like atmosphere, where a community of peers will cheer you on and fist bump you as you sell solar—and do push-ups alongside you each time you fail. They invite participants to boot camps or training sessions, sometimes in exotic villas or cabins, where sessions can end with a bunch of men jumping up and down in a huddle while hyping each other up as if in a football game. Some go so far to bring new sellers into group houses, where “they’re in boot camp hell and someone is getting them up at 8 a.m. and pushing them to do door-to-door sales,” says Clayton Friedman, a partner at the law firm Troutman Pepper, who handles complaints in the solar industry. “I’d call it cult-like behavior.”
That behavior shows up in the field. A Houston salesman named Mark Hudspeth recently was pursuing a lead—essentially a person who might be interested in buying solar—he’d purchased from another company, and then got a disconcertingly aggressive text from a stranger: “You can f* right off, Solar Bro’s are taking this territory! This is our terf now!”
Courts are littered with cases of solar sales gone wrong. They allege that salespeople misrepresent their relationship with utilities, use high-pressure tactics to trick people into signing binding contracts even if their homes aren’t a good fit for solar, call homes on the Do Not Call registry to pitch them on solar, and lie about potential energy-bill savings. Then, according to the legal complaints, the companies fail to complete solar projects in the time frame promised, ignore deadlines from utilities, and then threaten homeowners with large termination fees and lawsuits if they try to cancel the sale.
These problems appear to be growing. The number of complaints submitted on reportfraud.ftc.gov containing the words “door” and “sales” and “solar” jumped from 33 in 2021 to 70 in 2022 to 154 through Nov. 1 of this year, according to a FOIA request submitted by TIME to the Federal Trade Commission. While the number of complaints jumped fivefold between 2021 and 2023, the amount of residential installed solar capacity increased just 40%.
Salesmen Who Stretch the Truth
Rooftop solar can be very good for homeowners who have the right homes—and the right expectations. Homeowners are much more likely to have a positive experience if they call around and compare quotes from solar installers, and if they use a company that friends or neighbors used and liked. But the sheer volume of door knockers and virtual solar sales agents means that many homeowners are encountering the bad actors, rather than the good.
Read more: Rooftop Solar Power Has a Dark Side
Sometimes, the salespeople aren’t lying exactly but are exaggerating the truth. “Want to see something cool? Watch me make five grand in 15 minutes,” says solar-sales guru Nick O’Connor on a TikTok video, before he knocks on a woman’s door and tells her that her energy bills are going to double in the next year—highly unlikely, given that the largest one-year increase in average electricity spending since 1984 was 13%, between 2021 and 2022.
“You can either take $20,000 tax credit to go solar or you pay the $20,000 by them taxing fossil fuels, oil, and gas,” says one door-knocker to a homeowner who has already said she is not interested, in a TikTik video.
Salesmen for the company Brio were trained to exaggerate the financial benefits of solar panels, portray them as free, and offer one-day-only deals like 12 months of free loan payments that didn’t end up materializing, according to a lawsuit filed against the company by Minnesota’s attorney general in December 2022. “When you come up with a number like [that], they’re like holy s***, even though we’re only lowering their bill by about five bucks,” one trainer allegedly said.
“We’re not selling anything,” says Taylor McCarthy, the co-founder of Knockstar University, tells homeowners in a TikTok video, as he proceeds to sell them on solar panels. “I’m not a solicitor,” he says, in another video, before he approaches a house with a No Soliciting sign; though the homeowners told him no 20 times before, later in the video he tells the audience that “I got it to yes.” In another video of a “Texas blitz,” in which McCarthy tries to sell as much solar as possible in two days, a policeman tells him he needs a license to knock on doors—and when he can’t get the license, he continues to knock. McCarthy says he sees himself as a service provider, rather than as a solicitor, since people can save money and own their own power production once they switch to solar. He also said that he wasn’t violating any laws after he was approached by the policeman, since he continued knocking in another town.
McCarthy was a long-time door-to-door salesman before he co-founded Knockstar in 2021. He started out with just a handful of prospective sellers; now, he estimates, he trains 10,000 a year. His approach seems to work: he portrays the utility company as corrupt; asks people why they chose the utility company they did (people largely can’t choose which utility company services them); asks them how much their energy bill has gone up in the last year; and when they tell him the cost of their utility bill, he pretends that he thinks it’s for the quarter, rather than for the month. “If your tactics are sound, they can’t fight you,” says McCarthy. “It’s not even work at this point—it’s like you’re a professional trick or treater.”
Some of his clients, according to videos he posts online, are very happy with their purchases. But McCarthy does omit important information at times: he tells homeowners, for instance, that they’re better off owning solar panels than paying a monthly utility bill while in reality, if you have solar panels, you probably have both a utility bill and solar payments. Though you may save money overall by installing solar, saying that you’re gaining independence from the utility company is not quite true.
Every time I asked McCarthy a question about something that seemed untrue, he had an answer that sounded believable, such as that he over-sizes solar systems to ensure people won’t have electric bills. He seems to truly believe that he is helping people get out from under the thumb of the electric company. “To be a good solar professional, you need to blend two opposites,” he says. “You have to be aggressive but kind. Assertive but nice.” McCarthy illustrates why it can be so hard to rein in the industry: he is earnest and polite and knowledgeable but still plays hard and fast with the truth.
There’s No Regulation In Solar Sales
Solar companies have engaged in aggressive sales tactics from the earliest days of the industry; door-to-door sales were pioneered by a company called Vivint Solar, which was founded by a former Mormon missionary. By 2013, Vivint, which started in 1999 as a door-to-door home-alarm sales company, was the fastest-growing rooftop solar installation and financing business in the U.S. and had just been acquired by the investment firm Blackstone.
Problems quickly arose. By 2016, consumer protection groups were registering complaints with regulators about salespeople misrepresenting the costs and benefits of solar panels; in reviewing complaints submitted to regulators between 2012 and 2016, the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit, found “a widespread pattern of apparent fraud and abuse by solar companies.”
Attempts at regulation have not made much of a difference. New Jersey, for example, fined Vivint $122,000 in 2019 for selling panels based on inaccurate price quotes and obtaining credit reports without customer consent. But in 2022, homeowners filed another lawsuit against Vivint in New Jersey, alleging that a Vivint salesman forged signatures to close a solar deal; when Vivint was informed that the agreement had been forged, the complaint says, it refused to cancel the contract.
In a statement provided to TIME, SunRun—a national solar company that acquired Vivint in 2020—said that the allegations in the complaint predate its acquisition, and that it already settled the case, denying wrongdoing. SunRun requires all sales consultants to adhere to a strict code of conduct and ongoing ethics training, the company says.
Installing solar panels is expensive, and it’s not something homeowners should undertake without a lot of consideration and research. But there’s also a rush to speed adoption and help states meet their renewable energy goals, and the solar industry writ large has not shown much interest in policing the bad actors, for fear of slowing down the good. “The companies are just obsessed with profits—that’s why they turn a blind eye to abundant sales fraud,” says Milz, the attorney.
Fraud is difficult to crack down on today because of the number of different parties involved in the sale of solar panels. In the past, the same companies that were knocking on doors selling solar panels were also the ones installing them, so customers knew where to complain if they felt they’d been misled. Today, the person knocking on your door may be an independent contractor who will be hard to find once you realize he over-promised you on the benefits of solar.
The company loaning homeowners the money to buy solar panels is another entity entirely. And as more people started buying solar panels rather than leasing them, the loan companies have helped enable misleading and sometimes fraudulent sales practices, says Steve Hamile, chief operating office of Nevada solar company Sol-Up, who has pushed for more regulations on solar sales in the state. “The lenders are as much of a problem as a solution,” he says.
Ryan, the 23-year-old man who flew to Florida to sell solar, says he was astounded by the speed at which he could help people secure financing to buy solar panels. If he had someone’s first and last name and their social security number, he says, he could sign them up for a 25-year-loan in under five minutes. Often, the actual cost of the loan was hidden. “If they truly saw the interest rates they were signing, they would get sick,” he says.
Lenders do not appear to be cracking down on fraudulent practices. For example, according to a complaint filed in December 2022 against GoodLeap, one of the biggest lenders in the market, a salesperson told an 80-year-old bedridden woman, Merion Kane, that she could get “free” solar panels from the government. She still declined, but the salesperson took out a loan in her name from GoodLeap to borrow $42,000 without her knowledge anyway. And the solar panels that were installed ended up not working. In another case, the attorneys general of Kentucky and Tennessee filed a lawsuit against Mosaic, another big lender, in February 2023, alleging that the company routinely does not provide the required truth in lending disclosures and ignores cancellation requests made within three days of a sale, the time period in which consumers are legally allowed to cancel. “This partnership has allowed Mosaic to reap enormous profits while facing no consequences for its participation in this harmful and unlawful business scheme,” the complaint alleges. (Neither Mosaic nor Goodleap returned requests for comment for this story.)
Some Burgeoning Attempts At Regulation
Nevada has taken the first big step to rein in some of the bad practices in the industry. It passed a bill in June that aims to get rid of independent contractors selling solar in the state, by essentially requiring solar panel salespeople to have an electrical contractors’ license in the state, or be the direct employee of a licensed contractor. The law also requires that a company make a recorded phone call that walks consumers through what they signed up for within 48 hours of a sale—in time for them to cancel.
The law was shepherded by Hamile, of Sol-Up, who kept running into customers who had been misled by door-to-door salespeople. Frustrated with how hard it was to find and hold these salespeople accountable, Hamile reached out to his local legislators. “What caused us dismay was that so many customers were saying, ‘look, I don’t know who to believe,’” he says.
Nevada’s law, which goes into effect in 2024, is not popular among certain solar companies; the Solar Energy Industries Association has argued that it will dampen enthusiasm among lenders for residential solar systems and “stifle” options for installers who want to have their sales handled by independent contractors.
Some in the solar industry support a company called Mentis that has created a standardized training and licensing program for solar sales that it says is similar to what real estate agents must go through. The company was founded by Brian Johnston and Chris Trocola, two former solar salespeople who realized that bad actors in the industry were jeopardizing its potential for growth—they say the industry is on board. “Finance companies and installers absolutely need this to happen because they keep fronting the bill for these kids who came in here and are now driving a Bentley because they lied to 13 people,” Trocola says.
Mentis’ online platform teaches the basics of the solar sales industry, including consumer protections. Salespeople who have had the necessary training, have passed background checks, and completed an ethics test can register on Mentis’ database, as can companies that meet its standards. The platform, in theory, enables Mentis to respond to complaints filed by consumers about its registered companies and sales reps.
Hamile says that Mentis’s solution isn’t workable since it doesn’t shut down the independent contractors who will say anything they can to make a sale. There already are training and certifications available in solar, he says, specifically from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.
Hamile and Joy Seitz, the CEO of another installer, American Solar & Roofing, agree that the industry needs to realize that regulation would actually benefit it at this point. Solar sales have been around for more than a decade now, yet it hasn’t been regulated like sales of other big-ticket items like real estate. Practices are allowed in solar sales that aren’t allowed in real estate, like paying kickbacks for referrals. “Solar is no longer a nascent industry and like every other large industry,” says Seitz, who is also a board member of the Solar Energy Industries Association, “oversight is required as bad actors take advantage of loopholes and no accountability.”
After all, this is America, where money drives behavior and where people are quick to take advantage of ways to get rich quickly. Ryan, the 23-year-old, believes in capitalism but also worries that companies have figured out how to avoid liability for any lies that salesmen say. Without that accountability, there’s no bounds to the amount of money that people can make, he says. No matter what, the guys on social media who are swimming in money—regardless of how their fortune was attained—will draw people in. “He’s in his 20s, he has a Lambo,” says Ryan. “Why would I listen to anyone else?”
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org