Interested in SunShare’s Denver Solar Garden? The view isn’t so sunny from the inside.
SunShare, the much-ballyhooed operator of community solar gardens along the Front Range, seems like a great opportunity. Area residents interested in solar power but who can’t or don’t want to install panels on their roofs can instead subscribe to a piece of a SunShare community garden, with monthly subscription costs offset by “solar credits” deducted from their utility bills. But before you sign up, make sure you really and truly love the idea — because once you’re a member of SunShare, there’s no easy way to leave for a very, very long time.
I learned this the hard way.
In April 2015, I signed up for SunShare, largely because my Denver neighbor worked for the locally based company and it seemed like a good thing to do. But in the ensuing years, my enthusiasm for the company waned. My neighbor stopped working for the firm, and I learned that NRG, the behemoth independent power producer SunShare partnered with on several of its solar gardens, is one of the country’s biggest polluters and has failed to successfully transition to cleaner power sources. What’s more, because of the complicated multiple monthly electricity bills I was receiving from Xcel and SunShare, I wasn’t exactly sure if I was saving money with SunShare, breaking even, or spending a whole lot more.
So, early this year, I called up SunShare and said I wanted out. That’s fine, a company representative cheerfully replied. I could cancel my membership once SunShare lined up a replacement for my piece of the garden. Otherwise, I was stuck with the service until my contract ended – in 2035.
Huh? I had figured canceling SunShare would be like stopping any other membership or service: Sign on the dotted line, stop paying, and stop receiving the benefits. And even if the company did have to arrange a replacement for me, why did the rep seem to suggest that might take a while, considering that last year SunShare CEO David Amster-Olszewski told the Denver Post that the company “receives inquiries from 1,000 new customers a month”? I asked to speak to a supervisor. The manager would call me back and provide me with the proper cancellation paperwork, the SunShare rep replied. That never happened.
Over the next few months, I called SunShare over and over again, trying to get answers. A few times I reached the manager, who repeatedly promised to work everything out and then call me back — something she never did. Finally, in late April, I signed a SunShare cancellation notice, and the manager assured me I was out of SunShare for good. Since then, I’ve continued to receive solar credits on my Xcel bill, and the resulting SunShare invoices now total several hundred more dollars.
When I called the manager back a couple weeks ago, her response wasn’t encouraging: What if SunShare offered me a better deal on my solar-garden subscription? I laughed. After how I’d been treated, no offer would get me to stay. Other than that, the manager said she couldn’t help me; her hands were tied.
SunShare was just abiding by the terms of my contract, she explained. In her defense, she’s right. In the second paragraph of Subsection E of Section 16 of my service agreement, it notes that if I wish to terminate my service and “there are no customers on our wait list who agree to subscribe to your Production Capacity,” I will “continue to be responsible for the Monthly Payment under this Agreement.”
In kinder, simpler times – i.e., 2015 – I’d hastily signed up for SunShare without doing basic consumer due diligence. I hadn’t read the fine print. I hadn’t asked basic questions like, “How do I get out of this arrangement?” After boneheaded moves, maybe I deserve to be stuck with SunShare until right around the time the sun cataclysmically expands, destroying us all.
And yet, in my defense, maybe I hadn’t inquired about such matters because I couldn’t have imagined being stuck in this situation. It doesn’t matter that alleged former SunShare employees complain online of the company’s unscrupulous management and deceptive sales practices. It doesn’t matter that the Minnesota Attorney General's Office is looking into complaints about SunShare and other local solar-garden services over their excessively long and unclear service contracts. It wouldn’t matter if I became so inspired by SunShare’s promise of “providing a cleaner, brighter planet” that I decided to take the next step and install solar panels on my own roof. I’m not able to leave the solar garden for eighteen more years unless SunShare is able to find someone to take my place. And apparently, none of SunShare’s thousands of alleged potential subscribers wanted my particular piece of the garden.
Or maybe SunShare just hadn’t bothered to ask anybody.
After I informed SunShare that I was penning a Westword article about my experiences, I finally got a call back – from Rick Baughman, SunShare’s senior vice president of sales. While Baughman insisted he “couldn’t care less” that I was writing a story, he was suddenly strikingly forthcoming, revealing things that neither I nor any other local SunShare customers were seemingly aware of. While in the past SunShare has said NRG received a “significant” equity position in its solar gardens in exchange for millions in investment dollars, now Baughman told me the New Jersey-based energy giant actually owns the Denver solar garden outright, and SunShare is just “helping them with customer management.”
What happened with my contract is “NRG’s decision,” said Baughman — and apparently they’d decided I wasn’t going anywhere.
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That’s because while Baughman says SunShare signed up 8,000 residential customers last year, over the past five months the company has had absolutely zero people express interest in becoming a part of the local solar gardens. That’s because the deal my fellow SunShare subscribers and I signed up for in 2015, which involved a 3.5 annual rate increase, is “not as attractive a deal as it needs to be,” said Baughman. “The multiplier is so damn high.” So much for SunShare’s promise of “protection against expensive rate hikes.”
Baughman assured me he’d get back to me promptly with a possible resolution to my situation. So far, despite having left him multiple messages, that hasn’t happened. (At least the company is consistent.)
So at least for the foreseeable future, I’m stuck with SunShare. At least I’m contributing to a good cause like solar – though for all I know, SunShare and NRG could be harnessing its power from Keanu Reeves à la The Matrix, and I still wouldn’t be able to get out of the arrangement.
There’s still one other way I can get out of my SunShare contract. According to my agreement, I can terminate the service if I personally identify an “eligible transferee.” In other words, dear Denver readers, if you’re interested in becoming a part of SunShare after learning about my experiences with the company, please let me know. But if that’s the case, I also have a bridge to sell you.