- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2016

BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) - Unsolicited offers to subscribe to solar gardens are prompting an increasing number of people across the state to send complaints to the Minnesota attorney general’s office, according to an official.

Some of the complaints fielded by the office are from residents who say they’re getting too many calls, while some are from residents who have subscribed to solar gardens and fear they’re being ripped off. Many people are confused about whether the offers they’re receiving in the mail or via social media make sense for them.

The confusion is justified, because the solar garden business is new, Deputy Attorney General James Canaday told Minnesota Public Radio News (https://bit.ly/1p1wtqI ).

“Many people have the desire to go green,” he said. “Companies and marketers are aware of that. We’ve seen consumer fraud in the past that targeted consumers with a message of going green. Consumers need to keep that in mind and do their homework.”

Solar gardens are a way for consumers to buy solar power from an energy company without installing panels on their homes.

A major solar garden expansion is beginning in Minnesota, where the number of functioning gardens is expected to grow from 17 to 200 by the end of the year. Many of those new projects are under the control of Xcel Energy, but some other utilities around the state will offer their own programs.

Some of Minnesota’s solar gardens require large payments upfront, while others send monthly bills to customers. Most of the gardens promise long-term savings, and almost all of them ask subscribers to sign 20- to 25-year contracts.

The length of the contracts raises some red flags, Canaday said, because few purchases require such a long commitment.

In 2013, when lawmakers were drafting a state law requiring utilities to get 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar power by 2020 and calling on Xcel to create a community solar garden program, the attorney general’s office asked the Public Utilities Commission to vet all solar garden contracts and marketing materials before approving projects.

But the commission declined to enact those safeguards, Canaday said.

That means the cost-saving claims or contract terms on the marketing materials sent to many Minnesota residents haven’t been vetted by any government agency.

Xcel strategy director Lee Gabler said marketing and subscriptions are handled by the outside contractors that the utility works with to build and maintain solar gardens.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, https://www.mprnews.org

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