On a steamy summer day, Paul LaFrance sifted through a sea of memories inside the New Bedford home where his mother lived for more than 40 years.
“It’s kind of tough when you’re packing your parent’s stuff away,” LaFrance expressed. “It’s a lot to deal with.”
His mother, Barbara Plante, died at the age of 84 in April. As executor of the estate, LaFrance is in charge of gathering her possessions and deciding the future of the property.
In her later years, LaFrance said he and other family members watched Plante battle early stages of dementia.
“Very sweet lady,” LaFrance recalled. “But you would talk to her and within minutes, you’d be having the same conversation over again.”
So when LaFrance started going through his mother’s financial documents, he was stunned to learn at the age of 82—two years before her death—she had signed a 20-year contract for solar panels with Sunrun.
The agreement locked his mother into $95 monthly payments to the solar company. She also continued paying utility bills for electricity usage beyond what the panels on her roof produced. For instance, her bill from Eversource last January was $96.04.
LaFrance discovered his mom signed the contract after visits from a door-to-door salesman.
“I believe she was preyed on,” LaFrance said. “It’s tough because you can’t be there to protect them 24-7.”
Solar company responds to allegations
When the NBC10 Boston Investigators contacted California-based Sunrun, the company defended its agreement with Plante, saying it trains employees to avoid overly-aggressive sales tactics.
“We have stringent verification procedures to ensure our customers fully understand the service agreement,” spokeswoman Georgia Dempsey wrote via email. “Sunrun does not discriminate in our service offering to customers, including on the basis of age.
“In Mrs. Plante’s situation, she submitted a high-quality application which provided extensive information on her personal circumstances and engaged with our customer care team a number of times seeking guidance on how to establish an automatic payment.”
Sunrun also said out of “good faith,” it waived late payment fees when Plante missed her first couple of monthly bills, saying she was uncertain about the online payment process.
“They told me that when they spoke to her, she sounded confused,” LaFrance recalled. “There was a reason she was confused: She had dementia!”
Lawmaker calls for more consumer protection with solar agreements
Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Republican state lawmaker, believes the solar industry needs more oversight. During the previous legislative session, he proposed creating a commission to study the industry and produce a set of guidelines to protect consumers.
Dooley is far from anti-solar. He recently installed panels on the roof of his Norfolk home.
Before moving forward with the project, Dooley said he got bids from ten different companies, hearing a wide spectrum of promises and energy projections. It made him realize how confusing the process can be, especially to more vulnerable consumers.
“It becomes overwhelming and they can get taken advantage of,” Dooley said. “It seems some people are preying on consumers who are on a fixed income and don’t necessarily understand the technology.”
Elderly consumers complain to Attorney General
The NBC10 Boston Investigators reviewed complaints about area solar companies submitted to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in 2017.
Out of the 230 consumer complaints, 40 percent of the people checked a box indicating they were over 60 years old.
Many of those complaints accused the companies of deceptive sales tactics:
• “I will be 85. Why would I sign a 20-year agreement?” a Millbury man wrote.
• “I believe I was deceived or conned into something,” a Leicester woman expressed.
• “He is elderly and hard of hearing and they completely took advantage of him,” a Worcester woman wrote about her dad’s experience.
• “I wonder how many others fall for this sales pitch, which I consider fraud and elder abuse,” an Oxford woman said about her contract.
• “This is a shady business practice that I believe preys on the elderly,” a Holden man wrote about his elderly mother’s solar agreement
Dooley worries that examples like that will prevent Massachusetts from reaching its renewable energy goals.
“If we allow this to happen, people are going to start shying away,” he said. “When there’s abuse, we need to set forth some standards and make sure these situations don’t keep happening over and over again.”
Despite doctor’s letter, family responsible for payments
To bolster his argument, LaFrance obtained a letter from his mom’s doctor, a piece of evidence that he hopes will prove her fragile mental state when she signed the solar contract on February 27, 2016.
“It is my medical opinion that during the period of time from January 2016 until her death, Barbara suffered from severe cognitive impairment and was not competent to make complex financial decisions and could have been easily exploited,” Dr. Robert Sawyer wrote.
A Sunrun spokeswoman said the company is disappointed to hear about these issues now, adding that any verified proof at the time of installation in 2016 would have impacted the sales process.
The company told the NBC10 Boston Investigators it will go “above and beyond” to assist with transferring the agreement to a new homeowner, if the property is sold.
“Barbara got the value, savings and service expected from Sunrun,” the company said.
For now, Plante’s family remains on the hook for the payments. Under the circumstances, LaFrance believes the agreement should be voided.
“The right thing to do would be to just pull the solar panels off,” he said. “Take them off and go away.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.