Certified Solar took thousands but never installed panels, Ontario investors say

Home and farm owners in southwestern Ontario who spent tens of thousands on solar equipment say the equipment was never installed and now the company isn't paying them back

Families invested in renewable energy to make their lives easier, instead got a legal headache

Bill and Matt Millar, of Millar Berry Farms in London, Ont., say they gave Certified Solar thousands, but haven't received any equipment nor a refund. (CBC)

Dozens of home and farm owners in southwestern Ontario who invested in solar power are feeling burned.  

After investing tens of thousands of dollars with Certified Solar, customers say they have yet to see any equipment installed, with orders dating back as early as 2012.

Many were drawn by the possibility of generating high profits from the Ontario government's Feed-in Tariff program, which was introduced in 2009 to promote green energy in the province. But CBC News has spoken to customers who say that all the experience has generated for them is a serious financial headache.

I'm embarrassed, I'm ashamed I got taken like this.- Bill Millar, Owner of Millar Berry Farms in London, Ont.

Bill Millar, who owns Millar Berry Farms in London, Ont. says he invested in the panels after a Certified salesman came to his door, touting large profits and an easy way to make a little extra money for his family.

"My wife's got rheumatoid arthritis, I thought the extra money would come in handy," he says. "I have to hire a little more as we get older ... I have to ease off the workload a little."

Millar became interested in solar energy after the equipment grew popular at local farm shows. He also saw numerous solar panels popping up at neighbouring farms.

"I did my research," Millar says. "I saw that the numbers were right and looked very promising."

After being told paying up front would save them overall, Millar and his wife Sylvia took out a $100,000 mortgage on their farm and cut the company a cheque.

But over two years after handing their money over to the company, the Millars have nothing to show for it.

"Eventually we got an email saying they would not be fulfilling the contract," Millar says. "They would be refunding our money."

They say the only way to reach the company has been via email and that their questions about their equipment and refund are either ignored or met with evasive answers from a company spokesperson.

Millar says the farm, which has been in his family for three generations, could be in jeopardy as he struggles to pay the interest on his mortgage with no new income.

"I'm embarrassed, I'm ashamed I got taken like this," says Millar.

Solar company says it's working to pay back money

When reached for comment, Certified Solar co-owner Craig O'Brien sent back the following statement, insisting that the company is working to pay customers back:

"Certified Solar no longer takes on new customers, but it remains committed to generating income with the intent of repaying deposits for solar systems that have not been and will not be installed," the statement said.  

"While the process has been slow, there are numerous customers that had paid deposits who are now seeing those deposits repaid in installments on a monthly basis."

When CBC News asked specific questions about how and when the company would pay their customers back, O'Brien declined an interview. He explained that Certified Solar is currently party to ongoing litigation and "the nature of the questions and answers could have an impact on the Court process."  

But Millar's son, Matt Millar, who stands to inherit the farm and has been helping his parents fight to get their money back, isn't buying anything coming from Certified anymore.

"They have been saying this for six months and we've gotten nothing but a couple emails with more excuses," he says of the company's intent to pay customers back. "Certified Solar is great at talking about their good intentions, but do nothing to back it up."

'Excuse after excuse'

Frances Watson, who purchased panels from Certified Solar in 2012, says the company's latest statements are more of the same.

Frances Watson and her partner, Gandolofo Signorello, took Certified Solar to court. (CBC)
"It's been excuse after excuse after excuse … they said this a year ago and there has still been nothing."

Watson is one of the few clients who has managed to take Certified Solar to small claims court. She enlisted the help of a lawyer in late 2014 and settled with the company earlier this year.

Watson's settlement was $22,950, to be awarded in increments over two years. It didn't cover all of the $30,000 she had initially invested, but she said she was happy the nightmare seemed to finally be over.

Unfortunately, her victory was short-lived. Certified Solar cancelled all but one of the cheques.

Watson, like the Millars, was looking for a way to make a few extra dollars to help cover costs for her and her partner, Gandolofo Signorello.

The two retirees are on disability and thought installing the panels would make life easier for them.

"I've got post-traumatic stress from this … I'm on ten different pills — one to help me sleep, one to keep me calm, one so that I don't cry all the time."

Watson says she would like to take the company back to court, but Watson believes she can't justify the expense of hiring a lawyer if there is no guarantee of getting her money back.

Both the Millars and Watson say that though the stress and heartache are difficult, the worst part of the ordeal is that no one seems to want to help.

"We wrote to consumer affairs, I got a hold of the ombudsman, I've written to Kathleen Wynne … every door closes. We don't know what to do," says Watson.