When David Rowe answered his front door in January 2015 to find a man with a clipboard under his arm selling solar panels, he was sure that it was going to be a short conversation.
David was 72, his wife Joan was in poor health and, with only a modest pension and savings to rely on, the idea of splashing out thousands on energy-saving devices was frankly preposterous.
But, before he could shut the door, the agent explained that David didn’t need to fork out upfront. The man said the firm he represented, My Planet, was offering excellent terms on a loan he could spread over a number of years. It meant that, as well as helping the environment, David’s energy bills would tumble.
The following week, a second sales representative turned up in a pinstripe suit to seal the deal. Over a two-hour pitch at the Rowes’ three-bedroom home in Upminster, Essex, the man seemed to have an answer to all their concerns.
Out of pocket: Joan and David Rowe fell victim to a door-to-door solar panel salesman
David finally signed up for a ten-year £14,000 loan when the salesman claimed the savings on his electricity — coupled with payments from the Government — wouldn’t just outweigh the 10 per cent interest and debt repayments, they would make him much better off.
Three-and-a-half years on, David, now 76, says those claims have come back to haunt him. For every year since the panels were installed, he’s been left more than £500 out of pocket.
He knows this because he set up a dedicated bank account to track all the costs and savings from his solar panels.
In fact, David’s investment has gone so badly that it is part of the reason he and Joan have had to sell their house and downsize to one on a cheaper estate.
Even after refinancing with another bank, they have been left paying £143 a month towards the £8,000 they still owe for solar panels they can no longer use.
‘Before getting the solar panels, we would arrange to go out for a nice meal once a month and go on self-catering holidays to Suffolk — but we can’t afford luxuries now,’ says David.
The couple are among thousands of people who were sold loans to install solar panels on their roofs, only to find that steep costs have outweighed any financial benefit.
Over the past two weeks, Money Mail has received 80 complaints from homeowners who feel they were misled by greedy salesmen who made the deals sound like one-way bets.
Complaint: Richard Beeley’s home faces east, so gets less sun, making the solar panel less effective
Their tales are remarkably similar to David’s, in that they all claim to have been left out of pocket every year by the loan repayments, even after their bill savings are taken into account.
Meanwhile, around 2,000 people have complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service in the past year alone. Estimates suggest the total number hit by the scandal could be as high as 20,000.
Three-quarters of last year’s complaints were about loans with three lenders: Barclays Partner Finance (part of Barclays Bank); Shawbrook Bank; and Creation Consumer Finance (part of French bank BNP Paribas).
Solar companies know that most people can’t afford the average cost of £7,000 to £9,000 for each panel. So they have gone door-to-door offering loans to fund the projects.
The most common type of panels are photovoltaic (PV) ones, which convert sunlight into electricity and should last 25 years.
You get free electricity when the sun is out and any surplus generated is sold back to your energy supplier at a ‘feed-in’ tariff set by the Government.
Homeowners are told the savings on offer mean that the panels pay for themselves. But, as David found out, this isn’t always the case.
He says his monthly loan repayments were £124, or £1,488 a year. He saved more on his energy bills in the summer, rather than the winter, months, but he says this evened out at around £480 each year.
His quarterly tariff payments from the Government fluctuated, too, depending on the season, but usually earned him around £490 a year.
Between January and March, David would receive £80; between April and June, this would rise to almost £200; between July and September, it would dip to £160; before going down to just £50 between October and December.
Overall, David claims that he was around £518 a year worse off after installing the solar panels.
Another reader, Andrew Rowley, says: ‘I would say I am probably about £400 to £500 a year out of pocket from this, despite the fact the salesperson told us that, after the first year, the panels would pay for themselves and more.’
Many, such as David Powter-Robinson, emailed to say they have put in a formal complaint after feeling pressured into accepting loans.
The Ombudsman says it has found ‘evidence of pressure sales techniques and misleading sales literature or representations by the salesperson’.
On top of this, many victims were ‘retired or approaching retirement’, it says. Experts say large, long-term loans are usually unwise for this age group. Although the sales were made by solar companies, consumer credit law states the lender behind deals must take responsibility if something goes wrong.
The Ombudsman has found against lenders in a number of cases. In one instance, it heard that a customer named only as Mr K was told he’d save around £25,000 over the next 20 years. But the finance agreement was for £40,000 over ten years.
The Ombudsman said: ‘This clearly didn’t make financial sense — and we didn’t think Mr K would have gone ahead if the full costs had been explained to him.’ It says it had no reason to doubt Mr K’s version of events.
It has now forced the lender to issue a new interest-free loan for the solar panels only, which significantly reduced the monthly costs.
In David’s case, his lender is Creation Consumer Finance, which is owned by BNP Paribas. He says when he voiced concerns to the My Planet salesman, he was offered a £1,000 cheque to sign on the spot.
‘I was worried about being locked into a ten-year loan at my age,’ says David. ‘What if something happened to me? My wife is a retired hairdresser and gets less than £100 a week from her state pension, so it felt risky.
‘The salesman kept repeating that: “It doesn’t cost you anything, this will save you money and the whole scheme is backed by the Government.” Unfortunately, we trusted him.’
During the 14-day cooling-off period, David lost confidence in the scheme and rang to cancel. Instead, the man in the pinstripe suit was sent round to put him at ease. ‘By then, my brain was addled by all the numbers and percentages he was telling me,’ says David.
Valerie and Patrick Jennings were cold-called by energy firm Clean Green in October 2015 and later visited by a sales agent
‘I came away thinking solar panels and renewable energy are for the greater good, so as long as I’m not out of pocket, I’ll do my bit for the environment and save some money while I’m at it.’
A spokeswoman for Creation Consumer Finance owner BNP Paribas says that its deals were ‘fully compliant with Consumer Credit Act regulations’. ‘Creation Finance was not involved in the selling process — which is the subject of these complaints,’ adds the spokeswoman.
‘BNP Paribas is committed to working with the Ombudsman to resolve any outstanding issues and is determined to ensure that these matters are dealt with swiftly and fairly.’
Patrick and Valerie Jennings say they had a similar experience. They were cold-called by energy firm Clean Green in October 2015 and later visited by a sales agent.
A young woman spent three hours extolling the virtues of renewable energy, taking pictures of their roof and using a compass to work out how much sun they’d get on their three-bedroom house in Dunstable, Bedfordshire.
Patrick, 71, is a retired BT manager and Valerie, 67, works as an administrator two days a week, so they were reluctant to be locked into a ten-year loan.
However, the Jennings say the woman told them the panels were a bargain at £8,995 and claimed they could earn £19,500 over 20 years. Valerie says: ‘She told us that only ten homes in the area could have this package and eight of them had been taken already.
‘In hindsight, we know that can’t have been right, as only one other home in the area has the panels. But at the time, we were drawn in by her. She also pointed out the Government’s feed-in tariff was being reduced in a few months, so we needed to make a quick decision to get the best deal.’
True, the Government has reduced its tariff several times since the scheme was introduced in 2010. Subsidies were slashed 65 per cent in February 2016 alone. And it is also correct that once you lock into a rate, you get that for life.
But Virginia Graham, who runs the Renewable Energy Consumer Code (RECC) and sets consumer standards for solar panel companies, says the threat of tariff change has routinely been exploited by ‘disreputable’ solar salesmen to push deals on people who shouldn’t be signing at all.
How to Claim If You Were Mis-sold
If you think you have a claim, gather documents to support the case and send them to your lender.
You should have updates from your energy provider showing feed-in tariff payments. And copies of energy bills from before and after you had the panels to show savings. This will all show how the panels have left you out of pocket. Evidence that the salesperson talked you into the loan will help. Include brochures or scribbled sums. Explain how the salesperson described the loan.
Send your complaint and all evidence to the loan provider. They should respond officially within eight weeks. If you’re unhappy, you have six months to refer your case to the Financial Ombudsman Service. Ring their customer helpline on 0800 023 4567 for advice.
When Valerie asked for the rate of interest on the loan, she says she was left thinking it was 0.79 per cent a year. In fact, the rate was 0.79 per cent a month — or 9.5 per cent a year.
That meant they faced paying back £4,971 interest on top of the £8,995 they borrowed. It wasn’t until April 2017, when Patrick and Valerie looked at their bills, that they realised that, despite paying £116 a month, very little of the capital was being cleared.
‘The interest was astronomical and we were barely chipping away at the overall debt. If we’d realised what rate we were signing up to, we’d never have taken it on,’ says Valerie. ‘We could have read the small print more carefully, but the whole deal was rushed through and they were so forceful that we were a bit flummoxed.’
The Jennings managed to pay off the balance using their savings, but were left relying on credit cards for day-to-day spending.
‘We’re the type of people who only spend what we have — we don’t overextend ourselves and hate living beyond our means — so it’s rather galling,’ says Valerie.
Richard Beeley, 70, says he feels foolish after being talked into buying solar panels in 2014. A representative from a firm called iPower told him a solar panel system on his two-bedroom end-of-terrace would pay for itself within three years.
But now, Richard believes this projection was unrealistic — partly as his Rotherham home faces east and so generates less power than one facing south.
‘We felt we’d be benefitting the environment, but no one spoke to us about the specifics of our home and that it is poorly positioned,’ says Richard.
He pays £130 a month in loan repayments. In summer months, his £120 electricity bill is halved thanks to the panels, saving him around £60. In winter, his bill is only reduced by £10 a month.
So, on average, he saves £25 a month, but spends £130, making it a costly investment.
Richard and his wife Denise, 68, feel they weren’t given the full 14-day cooling-off period because their panels were installed 12 days after they signed up.
They complained about the mis-selling to Creation Consumer Finance — the same firm behind David and Joan Rowe’s loan.
The couple have received a 25 per cent discount on their repayments.
‘They wouldn’t actually admit any fault — but giving us a reduction as a gesture of goodwill says everything,’ says Richard.
A spokesman from industry trade body the Solar Trade Association says: ‘We condemn any sales techniques that overstate the benefits of solar panels to the consumer, as appears to be the situation with these cases.
‘We recommend all potential solar consumers always use an installer that is a member of a registered consumer code, such as the Renewable Energy Consumer Code (RECC) or Home Insulation & Energy Systems Contractors Scheme (HIES).’
A spokesman for Barclays Partner Finance says: ‘We are committed to delivering positive outcomes for our customers and apologise to those who feel they have had reason to complain. We work hard to resolve complaints and these are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.’
All of the solar panel sales companies named in this article have since shut down and could not be contacted for comment.