Hillary and Adam Dow looked forward to adding solar panels to the Hampden home they bought in August 2022. It already had a geothermal heating system, and their planned 37-panel solar system would make it even more energy efficient.
Later in 2022, they gathered referrals from people they knew and trusted. Based on those, they chose Hermon-based Pine Tree Solar to install the rooftop system. The company prepared a plan that was reviewed by a family member who already had solar. Everything seemed to check out.
Hillary Dow signed a contract in February and put down a $20,100 deposit by check, half of the project’s total price. Work was expected to start within 90 business days of a signed interconnect agreement with Versant Power, according to the contract. But in April the utility said it could not connect the home because of circuit capacity limits on the nearby grid, and it needed to make a further analysis. If Versant found it could add infrastructure to accommodate the Dows and others in Hampden who faced the same challenge, they would have to pay for it.
After a series of emails and conversations with Pine Tree Solar and Versant that produced no plan, the Dows told the solar company in May that they wanted to cancel the project.
“We waited and waited,” Hillary Dow said. “With no clear indication there would be a way to move forward, we asked for a refund on our deposit.”
They still have not received it.
They have filed complaints with the Maine attorney general’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and have spoken with the police department in Hampden. In early November, they filed a lawsuit in Bangor District Court to get their money back.
They are not alone. The Bangor Daily News interviewed residential and business customers who have filed complaints with authorities and are awaiting installation or refunds from Pine Tree Solar. The complaints show a pattern of delayed work, lack of communication from the company and failure to refund money for work not done.
So far, seven complaints about the company have been filed with the Maine attorney general’s office, three with the Better Business Bureau in both Maine and Massachusetts, and six with the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces federal consumer protection laws to prevent fraud, deception and unfair business practices.
The attorney general’s office and the FTC both confirmed the number of complaints, but they said the names of those who filed them and their contents are confidential. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on whether it would launch an investigation. Comments to the Better Business Bureau are online.
The complaints reflect a bigger challenge with hooking up solar: It can be complicated and expensive to upgrade Maine’s aging electricity grid to be able to handle new technologies. In addition to being a headache for customers, the difficulties could hamper the state’s clean energy goals.
Gov. Janet Mills in February set an aggressive new goal of getting all of Maine’s electricity from renewable sources by 2040. Some 142,000 Maine homes were powered by solar as of the second quarter of this year, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, with almost 9 percent of the state’s electricity coming from solar.
A new law signed by the governor in 2019 to promote solar energy resulted in a glut of projects that caused electricity distribution companies including Versant and Central Maine Power to warn they could overload the existing grid. Some homeowners like the Dows still are being told there’s no room on the grid for their hookup.
Even under the best of circumstances, connecting to the grid is not a simple plug-and-play operation, Judy Long, a spokesperson for Versant, said. The level of study that needs to be done for connection is highly technical, she said, and all parts of the system must work together to keep electricity flowing.
Complicating matters, massive supply chain issues over the last five years have created back orders on parts in excess of two years. If a specific inverter is unavailable and replaced with a different one, the new part has to be checked to see if it works with the whole system, Long said.
On top of that, she said, the upfront cost to install a solar system is high for the developer, so sometimes a project will be sold to another developer.
“It’s complicated. It’s like the wild, wild west,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of customers have a strong understanding of it, and if your developer doesn’t do a good job of explaining it to you, and you don’t take time to read your utility’s application process, I think there’s a lot of areas where customers could fall into traps.”
Public Advocate William Harwood said his office also has received calls where developers in some cases are not fully complying with consumer protection rules.
“But in fairness to the solar developers, the program is ridiculously complicated,” Harwood said. “It’s really hard to explain to the average citizen.”
Pine Tree Solar owner Michael Griggs agreed his company has not communicated the complicated process as well as it should have. It has hired seven management and communication professionals over the last six months to help educate customers, he said.
“Our communication with customers and them understanding the process has vastly improved this year,” Griggs said.
Only a small percentage of his customers are in contractual disputes, he said. The company, which started in 2019 and has 35 employees, has installed solar at 350 to 400 residences and 75 businesses.
Griggs said a lot of work is done internally to get the customer to a point where the utility will accept the project, including designing the project, engineering and representing the customer to the utility with any issues that arise. It sometimes takes 10 to 15 emails back and forth with the utility to get an interconnection agreement for one customer, he said. Without a contract in place, he might not be able to recover the cost of that work, which can run between $2,000 and $3,000, he said.
“There’s a lot of time and effort and money that is spent before we ever show up to do the customer installation,” he said. “We are dealing with contractual disputes, and, in some instances, customers will be refunded. It’s just that we have to get the actual amount of the refund.”
He said if Versant completely denies a hookup, he will provide a refund for the customer.
Long said the interconnection process is so complicated that Versant has its largest department, with more than 20 employees, devoted only to solar installations. The utility needs to keep the voltage on the electricity lines constant for all customers. If a new solar interconnection would overload the existing electricity circuits in their area, the customer would have to pay for new wires, transformers and other infrastructure. That is a requirement of Chapter 324 under the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s interconnection procedures. Long said the upgrades typically average $2,000, but it could be more if substantial improvements are needed.
For a customer in Orono, paying for upgrades to be able to connect his planned solar array to the grid meant an extra $10,000 for the infrastructure on top of the $21,240 for the project.
The customer said he wanted to “do the right thing environmentally” and was concerned about how electricity prices might rise down the road. Like the Dows, he supplied his downpayment of $10,620 to Pine Tree Solar. But he could not afford to pay Versant the $10,000 in upgrades that the utility requested for wiring in his neighborhood, which already had two homes on solar.
He said Pine Tree Solar told him he could put the panels on another property he owned in Gouldsboro and still get the benefits of having solar. He said Versant approved that site, and the installation was set to begin in October 2022. The start date kept stretching out through the winter of 2023.
“We called Pine Tree Solar in March and said we really need a specific date, or we want our money back,” he said.
The delays, which he said Pine Tree Solar attributed to weather and scheduling, continued, and in June he again asked for a refund. Pine Tree Solar never replied, he said, and he has not received a refund yet on his deposit made about 19 months ago.
He asked to remain anonymous for fear of not getting his money back. He filed complaints with the attorney general’s office in July and with the Better Business Bureau in Maine and Massachusetts. His July 13 complaint with the Better Business Bureau is online.
In a written response on July 25 to the customer’s complaint to the Better Business Bureau, Pine Tree Solar said the new location required a ground-mounted installation that it could not do in the winter. A late thaw followed by rain further extended the ground-mount installation.
Pine Tree Solar said that the customer demanded the return of the entire payment even though the company had done extensive work on the project, including processing, professional surveys and representation for the client to the utility company. The owners wrote back to say they only asked for money back minus reasonable costs and were never offered a specific refund.
Dow also received a notice from Versant that substantial upgrades might be required, but she did not get an estimate of the cost from Versant, which would have been a direct cost to her.
After her first refund request on May 15, Pine Tree Solar promised to return the deposit in two weeks. When it didn’t come, Dow continued her requests, even offering to pick up the check in person, according to emails with Pine Tree Solar that she provided to the BDN. On June 8, the Dows emailed Pine Tree Solar to say they still had not received their deposit and were displeased with the company for not responding to them. Hillary Dow told the company the next correspondence would be from their lawyer.
The lawyer sent a certified letter to Pine Tree Solar last month requesting the refund and threatening to take legal action if necessary. With no reply to that letter, the Dows have filed a lawsuit seeking a full refund and legal costs from Pine Tree Solar.
In that lawsuit, they also are challenging the contract that calls for a 50 percent down payment, noting that Maine home construction law limits initial deposits to no more than one-third of the total price. Griggs said he is not building a home but installing something on a home that is expensive.
Depending on the circumstances, contracts for solar installation may be home construction contracts, according to Danna Hayes, a special assistant to the attorney general.
The Dows and the customer from Orono are part of an email group of 17 people in the Bangor area who said they have had concerning interactions with Pine Tree Solar.
Brian Giroux of Orrington started the group after his experience with Pine Tree Solar. While Versant approved his interconnection application, Giroux said he began to get a bad feeling when he experienced a lack of communication from Pine Tree Solar. He asked for his money back in April, which amounted to $15,750 minus a $300 application fee.
As with Dow, he said Pine Tree Solar told him he would have his money back in 10 business days. That didn’t happen. But he had paid the deposit by credit card, and he asked the card company to get his refund from Pine Tree Solar. It took four months, but he finally got it.
He hired another developer to do the project for $6,400 less. Others are still trying to get their money back.
“People feel ashamed,” Giroux said. “We want this place shut down. People need to come forward.”
Tom Leighton, who has owned Stonington’s Furniture and Flooring in Brewer for 29 years, said hiring Pine Tree Solar was “the worst business decision I ever made,” though a neighboring business told him they had a good experience with the company.
He put down a $95,000 deposit in April 2022, or half of the total contract for the 154-panel project. The installation was to begin in August 2022 and take seven days to complete, he said. But it did not start until November and was not operational until April of this year, he said.
Like other customers, Versant told him he needed more infrastructure that would cost $14,986, which he paid. He figured the delay cost him savings from the solar project that was supposed to erase his $1,600-per-month electric bill. He does have a completed solar array now.
“I don’t think they had enough people,” Leighton said. “Even when they did start my project, they would show up for half a day, and then I wouldn’t see them for two weeks.”
Griggs, Pine Tree Solar’s owner, said the company may have been overextended at limited points, but that is not the case now.
Like Giroux, Leighton is concerned that the company is still operating and taking deposits.
“Everybody’s pushing solar and renewable energy,” he said. “You try to do the right thing, and this is what you get.”
Pine Tree Solar was running smoothly until about a year ago, a former employee said. At that time the company started taking on community solar projects that required large upfront investments. He said those projects carry big risks and are difficult to manage because there are a lot of subcontractors, and the projects often are resold to other developers.
Griggs said the company has been working on selective community solar projects, but they are under nondisclosure agreements.
The former employee asked to remain anonymous because he is now working for a competitor. The employee left the company because customers were asking for deposits back more frequently, which didn’t happen when he started in 2020. What’s more, his paycheck continued to either be late or bounce, he said.
The Maine Department of Labor issued a citation letter in April to Pine Tree Solar for failing to pay 13 employees. Griggs said he has paid the penalties, but a labor department spokesperson said they have not been paid yet.
Another burden for Leighton and some others are the liens that the people who supplied the material s put on customers’ property because the suppliers were not paid by Pine Tree Solar. Leighton had two liens placed on his property that total close to $83,000 for unpaid materials. He also has more than $5,000 in legal fees trying to get the liens released.
Materials suppliers and the state’s revenue department have filed a total of seven liens on property owned by Pine Tree Solar customers, according to the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds. They are trying to recoup nearly $300,000 in total for taxes or materials they provided for Pine Tree Solar projects.
Four liens were filed against customers of Pine Tree Solar by companies that provided materials for the solar projects. Three others are on properties owned by Pine Tree Solar.
Everything will be paid in the next few months, Griggs said. He said the company is solvent right now. It has a $1.2 million federal contract to build a solar array at the Knox County Regional Airport.
“We try to do the best we can to make our customers happy in certain circumstances that are beyond our control with the utility,” he said. “Some of the customer complaints are being acted on now.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has a team of attorneys and analysts that handles disputes between utilities and people trying to connect to the grid. So far it has received about 25 total reports of interconnection issues between developers and electric utilities related mostly to costs, timing and questions regarding technical aspects, Susan Faloon, a spokesperson for the commission, said.
The commission does not handle or track the frequency of disputes between a consumer and the solar developer over installations. Still, it has received a few reports from customers stating they have placed a down payment on a project or had a project installed only to discover there is no room on the grid for it.
All customers who hook up to utility infrastructure are responsible for the costs associated with interconnection. A new version of Chapter 324 adopted in early November by the commission aims to make the costs more transparent and less prohibitive for rooftop solar customers, Faloon said.
Griggs said it still is very difficult to connect to the grid in Maine. Massachusetts and other states have online portals for applying, and the approval is much faster, he said, but Maine still has a manual process for dealing with utilities.
The experience has left the Dows hesitant to consider another attempt to install solar.
“I think we’re both so scarred from this whole experience,” Hillary Dow said. “I can’t say that we would, to be honest, which is really unfortunate.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the deposit amount that Brian Giroux had put down. The amount was $15,750.
Lori Valigra is an investigative environment reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.