In spring 2022, several solar companies and executives based in Utah were accused of engaging in deceptive and fraudulent business practices in Minnesota. These Utah-based companies were punished in May, when Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison reached settlements that provided more than $310,000 to wronged customers. Although their operations in Minnesota have ceased, these companies continue to operate in other parts of the country.
The solar industry is experiencing significant growth, partially due to door-to-door salespeople who offer energy savings and promote environmental benefits.
Caitlin Owens, a health administrator residing in North Carolina, fell for this pitch in the summer of 2019 when a door-to-door salesman from Brio Solar LLC, a Utah-based solar panel installation company, approached her.
Brio Solar was among the companies implicated by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for solar sales fraud. In a complaint filed on April 25, 2022, Ellison’s civil lawsuit named Brio, Bello Solar Energy LLC, Avolta Power Inc., and Sunny Solar Utah LLC, as well as three executives (Jared Fager, Michael Kaelin, and Alan Whitaker) and three lending services that collaborated with the solar companies to finance consumer loans.
The 59-page complaint filed in the lawsuit states, “The solar defendants use deceptive and misleading tactics to gain customers’ trust, gain access to their homes, and sell them solar panels that cost far more than the average Minnesota solar PV system.”
None of the companies, executives, or their attorneys mentioned in the lawsuit responded to multiple requests for comment via email or phone calls.
According to Ellison’s office, the complaint alleges that these companies inflicted financial harm on Minnesota consumers, ranging from $20,000 to over $55,000, through their deceptive and fraudulent sales tactics and contracts.
Owens, who purchased solar panels for her North Carolina home, recounted that Brio conducted an assessment, presented her with a loan approval amount, and compared it to her current power bill, implying that she would save money by making loan payments instead of paying for energy.
With the promise of a 25-year warranty and ongoing servicing and repairs, Owens saw this as a long-term cost-saving opportunity while benefiting the environment.
The installation process went smoothly, and Owens didn’t encounter any issues until October 2022, when her panels stopped generating energy for an entire month. Initially, she attributed it to the weather, but as November passed with no energy generation, she realized there was a problem.
“I needed to call Brio,” Owens said. “To my surprise, Brio no longer existed. I searched online but couldn’t find their website.”
Dishonest Naming Practices
The solar companies implicated in the lawsuit have been able to keep operating by adopting new names through a process known as “doing business as” (DBA) filings, even after appearing to close down. DBA filings, submitted to the company’s state of origin, declare that the company is using a name different from its original registered name and allow the company to operate under either name.
Three of the companies mentioned in the Minnesota lawsuit—Brio Energy LLC, Bello Solar Energy LLC, and Avolta Power Inc.—are essentially the same companies with the same three or four executives managing them, but under new names. The lawsuit alleges that these frequent name changes confuse customers, and the timing of the changes coincides with public warnings and legal actions regarding the deceptive sales tactics mentioned in the complaint.
In 2015, two separate companies with similar names were registered with the state of Utah within seven months: Brio Energy LLC and Brio Solar Energy LLC. Brio Energy LLC is one of the companies listed in the Minnesota lawsuit, and its original certificate of organization identifies Jared Fager as the managing member, who is also individually named in the lawsuit. Brio Solar Energy LLC, on the other hand, appears in the lawsuit under a different name.
Brio Energy LLC also has two DBA names: Pure Solar Energy and Clean Energy Educators. The certificate of Brio Solar Energy LLC also lists Fager as the agent and member of the company, along with Coomer Enterprises, where Adam Coomer is listed as the manager.
Brio Solar Energy LLC didn’t retain its original name for long. In August 2017, it changed its name to Total Solar Solutions LLC. This name change followed a cease-and-desist letter sent by Austin Energy, the electric utility of Austin, Texas, to Brio Energy, accusing them of making fraudulent and misleading statements.
In summary, the same executives and corporations involved in the Minnesota lawsuit and facing complaints across the country have consistently rebranded over the years without the knowledge of their customers.