State Attorney General Tom Horne wants Arizonans to be careful of being ripped off by greedy solar-power companies.
In an announcement this morning, the state AG accused "some" rooftop-solar companies -- which he didn't name -- of unethical behavior. Horne dumped on solar-lease deals in general, saying buyers need to be careful or they'll end up paying more for their electricity.
We've got mixed feelings on this one: On one hand, we've been critical of solar power for some of the same reasons Horne notes in his warning, such as the fact that its usefulness is often oversold to the public.
Our interest in taking a less-than-promotional look at solar began with our examination of the Matinee Energy scam, a bogus solar-panel firm that claimed it would build one of the state's largest solar plants near Benson. It fled its Tucson office after New Times' investigation, and a lawsuit by its partners is still wending its way through Arizona U.S. District Court.
But pumping out releases like this could also be seen as a would-be deflection against the negative media attention Horne has received lately due to his campaign-finance scandals. He's struggling to keep his head afloat for two contested races he may face this year, first against Mark Brnovich in the Republican primary election on August 26, and, if he pulls that off, in the November 4 general election against Felecia Rotellini. After seeing today's release, we recalled a recent prediction by our colleague, New Times writer Stephen Lemons, that Horne would attack Brnovich "from the far right, because Horne has nowhere else to go."
Horne's press officer, Stephanie Grisham, e-mailed the release to New Times and other news media this morning. The release comes a day after the pro-solar group TUSK, led by Barry Goldwater Jr. and political consultant Jason Rose, staged a demonstration at the State Capitol to protest a move by the state Department of Revenue to start taxing solar-lease companies for the equipment they're putting on residential rooftops.
Arizonans may be looking to lower their power bills, and they may have heard about various tax credits and rebates that make solar energy a more viable option, Horne's release says. But he notes there is "no guarantee" of savings in deals that involve lease or finance payments. The dealer receives the rebates, then "mark up the component costs and labor so significantly that the costs of the system far exceed the potential benefits."
Competition between firms "has led some companies to engage in unethical behavior to obtain more customers and perform more installs," Horne claims in the release. They use "high pressure sales techniques or deceptive statements," and customers "may end up paying higher combined electricity costs after installing the system than before."
He then gives some tips to avoid being swindled.
Of course, some solar advocates might say the reduction in pollution by solar panels is worth you paying the extra cost.
The office's press-release web page doesn't yet contain the solar-scare, but it probably will at some point.
Meantime, Horne returned our call just now (about 12:30 p.m.)
The news release originated out of ongoing investigations being conducted by his office, Horne says, but he's not able to share details with the public at this time. The office will make an announcement "once we do something."
A civil injunction, maybe even a criminal case, could be the result, but Horne wouldn't speculate which was more likely. Nor would he name names.
Solar energy and the level it's subsidized by the public are "serious policy issues." But the investigations and warning stem from alleged misrepresentations about electricity-bill savings.
Horne denied that issuing a general advisory about solar-lease firms was a diversion or deflection from his legal and political troubles, though he acknowledged he knew it might be controversial due to the "powerful lobby" of solar companies.
He says the media has focused on "personal attacks" against him while ignoring the other work he does as the state's top cop.
"All along I've been doing my job. I've argued in more cases than any attorney general in Arizona history," he says, mentioning the long list of news releases on his official state web site.
Horne's troubles go well beyond personal attacks, actually. On Monday, he filed a formal response denying the claims by a former employee that he conducts campaign business illegally on state time. The Citizens Clean Elections Committee and state Secretary of State's office will figure out whether Horne did anything improper. The evidence so far seems to suggest he did.
Horne's facing calls for his resignation and the prospect of having to return $400,000 in donor contributions due to a previous campaign-related scandal.
In these cloudy times for his campaign, he's throwing a cloud over Arizona's rooftop solar industry. Maybe it'll help him, considering that most of the opposition to solar is found in conservative circles.
The national Solar Energy Industry Association didn't appreciate Horne's message, saying the state AG " fails to point out that for some solar systems, depending on application, location, and financial incentives, the payback period can be as little as four years."
Four years, huh? Not if the Arizona Corporation Commission allows Arizona Public Service to charge solar users more fees. To Horne's (potentially tainted) point, you've got to check out these sorts of claims before signing on the proverbial line which is dotted.
UPDATE: Solar companies, through TUSK, responded to our inquiry and blasted Horne for using "questionable judgment:"
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"We enthusiastically agree it's always good practice for consumers to do their homework before making a purchase," said the solar-company group, fronted by Rose and Goldwater Jr. "But when the Arizona Attorney General generalizes and smears an entire industry; that's wrong and frankly demonstrates questionable judgment. The Attorney General should get his ethical house in order before smearing ethical businesses in Arizona that follow the law, give consumers energy options, and employ thousands of Arizonans."
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.