Congress Grills DOE Official Over $3 Billion Loan to Solar Company Accused of Scamming Elderly

Free Beacon reported on over 50 consumer complaints filed against Sunnova in Texas

John Barrasso (R-WY) speaks during a Senate Energy Committee hearing (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)
January 11, 2024

A senior Department of Energy official faced questions over a $3 billion loan to a solar company accused of scamming elderly dementia patients during a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk said the department is doing its "due diligence" on the loan to Sunnova Energy, after Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, raised concerns about "deeply troubling complaints against this company."

The new scrutiny on Sunnova comes after the Washington Free Beacon reported on over 50 consumer complaints filed against the solar provider in Texas, and interviewed individuals who said their elderly and dementia-suffering family members were pushed into signing multi-decade solar contracts by door-to-door Sunnova salesmen.

"These are but a small fraction of the deeply troubling complaints against this company, Sunnova," said Barrasso during a hearing with Turk on Thursday. "Can I have your commitment that the department will go back and do its homework and reconsider this flawed decision to award Sunnova a $3 billion dollar loan guarantee?"

Turk said the loan guarantee, which was announced in October, was a "conditional commitment" that was still being considered by DOE.

"We are continuing to do our due diligence, continuing to do our homework," said Turk.

The loan to Sunnova was approved by the DOE Loan Programs Office, which is currently being probed by lawmakers and the DOE inspector general for potential conflicts of interests. The Free Beacon has reported on several companies that have received or are in advanced talks for the federal loans and which also have ties to the DOE loan office director, Jigar Shah.

One of Sunnova’s directors, Anne Slaughter Andrew, is a prominent Democratic donor who sat on the board of the Cleantech Leaders Roundtable, a trade group founded by Shah. Andrew recently departed the Cleantech board, after lawmakers started questioning the group’s relationship with Shah.

Barrasso said during Thursday’s hearing that the Better Business Bureau has revoked Sunnova’s accreditation. He cited the consumer complaints in Texas and noted that the company faced similar complaints in Puerto Rico.

Terry Blythe, a Texas resident, told the Free Beacon that her father was 86 years old and had been diagnosed with dementia when a door-to-door Sunnova salesman persuaded him to sign a 25-year solar panel lease in 2020. When her father passed away earlier this year, Blythe said she was left saddled with the $34,000 contract.

Another Texas resident, Mary Loller, told the Free Beacon that her elderly father was senile and had been given months to live when a door-to-door Sunnova salesman sold him a $60,000 solar system for his mobile home last year.

Barrasso also drew comparisons between Sunnova and Microvast, a lithium battery company that was approved for a $200 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2022. The funding drew scrutiny from lawmakers last year after the Free Beacon reported that Microvast was operating primarily from China.

DOE canceled the grant in May, after concerns were raised by Barrasso and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.).

"It appears that the [Department of Energy] has again failed to do its homework, or even a quick Google search for that matter," said Barrasso.

"I think you did the right thing with Microvast, pulling back. It should have been done beforehand," added Barrasso. "You shouldn't need a committee here, and a chairman or ranking member pointing out how bad this company is."

Turk said the DOE was "improving and strengthening" its research process in response to the Microvast controversy, to "make sure that we're doing the scrutiny that the public, the taxpayers deserve."