Sunday, November 24, 2013
In California and a dozen other states, it is becoming increasingly popular to have solar panels installed on private properties to reduce household electric bills. In addition to potentially significant energy savings, solar panels also help private parties mitigate climate change at the very local level. However, solar panels are expensive. Instead of buying them outright (an average-size residential system costs about $35,000), many consumers choose to lease the systems instead. This option typically entails no upfront costs and, as many solar panel providers tout, “low monthly rental fees” that are supposedly offset by utility bills savings and the avoidance of maintenance and upgrading otherwise associated with individually owned systems.
So is this a contractual win-win situation? Not necessarily so. Solar panel leases typically comprise terms that may either surprise the unwary consumer or turn out to be more favorable to the solar panel owners than the homeowners in the long run.
For example, state or federal tax benefits, renewable energy credits sold to companies to offset carbon emissions, and state or utility cash incentives go to the solar panel owners and thus not the leasing homeowners. Some contracts contain escalator clauses increasing the initially low lease payments over time. What is also often left unsaid, at least upon initial conversations with solar panel providers, is that if a household already has low electricity bills, leases structured as is often typically the case may not pay at all or be financially beneficial enough to justify the risks inherently involved in transactions between consumers and sophisticated energy company for something as new and technologically risky as solar electric panels. This risk is enhanced by the fact that the contract duration used by many California solar panel providers is no less than twenty years. Much could happen over two decades in relation to both the technical and financial aspects of these types of contracts: technology could (and likely will) change so that in the years to come, more effective systems are developed that could have produced even greater benefits for homeowners then tied to contracts for “old” technology. Utilities could reduce their electric rates so that the leases are not as commercially viable anymore. State and federal subsidies and other rules could change the entire energy field. Could consumers down the road prevail on an argument that imposing contracts of such durations in field so rapidly evolving is sufficiently draconian to be unconscionable? Probably not.
In California as in many - if not most - other states, unconscionability consists of both procedural and substantive elements and are evaluated on a sliding scale. The procedural element addresses the circumstances of contract negotiation and formation, focusing on oppression or surprise due to, among other factors, unequal bargaining power and the lack of meaningful choice. Substantive unconscionability pertains to the fairness of the actual terms of an agreement and to assessments of whether these terms are overly harsh or one-sided. However, substantive unconscionability “turns not only on a ‘one-sided’ result, but also on an absence of ‘justification’ for it.” Several problems thus abound for consumers attempting this argument. First, no reasonable argument can be made that leasing solar panels rises to the level of “needed services” or “life necessities” that even perceivably liberal California courts have called for in connection with the lack-of-choice prong. Second, consumer choice does exist here: homeowners could, for example, simply not rent the panels if not sure of the ultimate advantageousness of the deal. They could buy the systems outright instead, or ask their utility providers if it is possible to increase the percentage of household power purchased from renewable sources if interested in acting on climate change. Substantively, twenty years is a long time, but far from uncommon in contractual contexts. Finally, the solar panel companies have an arguably justified cause for requiring a twenty-year duration, namely installing the equipment at no upfront payment, servicing it over years, and the chance to recover a good return on it.
Solar power is one of many solutions that could prove viable in mitigating climate change. In a nation with as much annual sunshine as the United States, solar power will hopefully quickly become much more prevalent than is currently the case and help us as a nation become more energy independent. Consumers may be well able to obtain current and significant energy savings if operating solar systems on their properties. But consumers should realize that twenty-year leases constitute a significant legal commitment that will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid if better technological solutions should be discovered in the next years to come.
Myanna Dellinger, JD, MA, Assistant Professor of Law, Western State College of Law