Sarah and Madison Curup live in the city of Franklin, near Milwaukee, and battled rising energy bills throughout last year. After researching their options, the couple decided to add solar panels to their home, viewing it as a way to offset rising utility bills and as an investment for their 1-year-old daughter’s future.
"We thought, 'This is gonna be a great investment,'" said Madison Curup.
They began researching local companies and eventually signed a contract with Waukesha-based Sun Badger Solar in mid-2022, putting down a roughly $20,000 deposit on a solar system.
While Sun Badger came to inspect the Curups' house twice after the contract was signed, the couple hasn’t heard from the company in months and still has no solar panels to show for their investment.
"We started, probably since December, trying to call and reach out to the people, but nobody picked up the phone ever since," Madison Curup said. "It's very, very upsetting — very sad to know that there are people out there not caring about people's hard work and savings."
The Curups aren’t alone. Many residents in Wisconsin and neighboring states have been left scrambling after Sun Badger Solar ceased solar installation operations and furloughed employees last month. Its website is no longer active, and customers say they haven’t heard from the company in over a month.
As a result, customers don’t know whether they’ll be refunded for tens of thousands of dollars in down payments on incomplete projects, while employees and suppliers say they’re still owed thousands themselves.
Sun Badger Solar now faces a flurry of lawsuits from customers, suppliers and former employees. As of Monday, those include six in Wisconsin, three in Minnesota and one federal lawsuit in the Illinois Northern District Court.
At the same time, the company’s rating from the Better Business Bureau has fallen from an "A" to an "F." The bureau has received and processed at least 67 complaints against Sun Badger, many of which the company has not responded to, according to Lisa Schiller, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, or DATCP, has received at least 50 complaints against the company since the start of the year, according to department spokesperson Caleb Kulich.
DATCP has launched an investigation into Sun Badger Solar, but officials couldn’t comment on the specifics. The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment regarding possible criminal investigations into the company.
On Dec. 19, Sun Badger Solar's national lender changed from financing projects on the front-end to paying on the back end, according to company President Trevor Sumner.
"That caused a massive shortfall in our cash flow for the week of Dec. 19," Sumner told WPR. "We missed the payroll of Dec. 23, right before Christmas. As you can imagine, missing any payroll is bad, but when you have a 120-person company and you miss payroll two days before Christmas, it's a catastrophe."
One of the employees impacted by the missed payroll is Ted Beringer of Hubertus, who worked as a supervising electrician for Sun Badger.
"My holidays were destroyed without those checks. That's my income. That's my livelihood," he said.
Beringer said he continued working for Sun Badger even after not being paid for the Dec. 23 payroll, but hasn't been compensated for any work completed since that period.
"I'm gonna be seeking other employment, obviously. But it's just like, I don't even want to tell people I worked here," he said.
On Jan. 13, Sun Badger sent a notice to customers, shared with Wisconsin Public Radio, saying it was pausing projects because the company "overestimated our ability to fulfill some of our commitments in a timeframe that meets our standards." Sun Badger said it would reach out to customers with a status update on projects "in the coming weeks."
But the company still hasn’t contacted many of the customers with incomplete solar projects. When Sun Badger sent that communication to customers, Sumner said he thought the company was going to find a way to navigate the lending issue and continue projects.
One week after the notice to customers went out, the company furloughed its "nonessential positions," according to a Jan. 20 furlough notice.
"It created a situation where we did not have the staff to keep up that commitment of communication (with customers)," Sumner said.
That lack of contact, coupled with news of the company’s financial struggles, has left many customers worried about their investments.
One such customer is Phil Woodworth of Evansville, who invested $20,000 for a 33 panel system, but only has a railing on the roof of his home and an electrical box to show for it.
"It won't change my lifestyle, but I do feel sorry for the people that it's probably really going to affect," Woodworth said.
Woodworth has been in touch with a local lawyer, but said he doesn’t plan to sue the company because of the additional cost involved in litigation.
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But some have taken Sun Badger to court, including Guy and Judy Senkowski, who sued Sun Badger in Columbia County Circuit Court last week.
According to the civil complaint, the Senkowskis entered into a contract with Sun Badger in December 2021 to "substantially complete" installing a solar system on their property "inside of four months." They paid the company over $88,000 in January 2022, but the project has yet to be completed, court documents said.
"Sun Badger has not installed any solar equipment, provided any services or even stepped foot on the Senkowskis property in over six months," the civil complaint said. "The Senkowskis have reached out to Sun Badger multiple times in the past six months with no response."
Were there signs Sun Badger was struggling beforehand?
Sumner said Sun Badger was a reputable company until it ran into financing problems in December. He said it has installed solar on more than 1,500 homes since 2018.
Prior to 2023, DATCP only received three complaints against Sun Badger, while the Better Business Bureau received one complaint in 2020, two in 2021 and seven in 2022.
But some former employees said they noticed difficulties months before December, and state officials in Minnesota also heard complaints about the company prior to its financing challenges.
While many employees quit when Sun Badger missed payroll, some continued working for the company. Beringer ended up working for the company until he was furloughed.
He said beginning around October, his budget for solar projects became "very limited," which made it difficult to obtain supplies to complete projects.
"There were multiple jobs that we couldn't go to because we didn't have the materials to do them," he said. "And they weren't allowing me to purchase the materials to do the jobs, either."
On Dec. 16, the Minnesota Attorney General’s office sent a notice to Sumner and Sun Badger that said the office had reason to believe Sun Badger could be violating state laws.
"This office has received complaints indicating that Sun Badger may be accepting consumer funds for solar panel installations despite knowing that Sun Badger is not able to complete already-accepted solar projects in a timely fashion," the letter read.
Prior to launching Sun Badger Solar, Sumner was a regional sales representative for the defunct Minnesota-based Able Energy Co. Able Energy’s former chief executive Michael Harvey has been charged in Minnesota with theft-by-swindle.
According to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, Harvey allegedly cheated 53 customers out of over $1 million with false promises of providing and installing solar panels from January 2017 through July 2018.
Sumner said Able Energy was his first experience working in solar, having previously worked in hospitality. But he said the situations at Able Energy and Sun Badger couldn’t be more different.
"(Able Energy was) selling a good or service that they were, at the time of contracting, completely incapable of even fulfilling," Sumner said. "There is not even a comparison to the situation that we are in at Sun Badger because up until Dec. 19, we had a 120-person strong solar energy company across multiple states, fulfilling installations daily."
What’s next for customers and employees?
Sumner said he is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to find a way to pay employees for uncompensated work.
Customers who used one of Sun Badger’s financing partners are "insulated" in the sense that if the company defaults or if the project is not completed, they can cancel their contract, he said.
However, Sumner said those who made self-financed deposits for solar projects are not protected the same way. He said the company is seeking solutions, but it's unclear whether those solutions will involve refunds or completing some solar projects.
"For the customers who have placed a down payment of their own funds, we are looking for a solution," Sumner said. "That is really what I am focused on, from a day-to-day standpoint, is trying to figure out how to save these customers' investments. And just trying to do right by those people who invested in our company and in green energy."
But for customers who have invested thousands and have yet to see results, Sumner’s words ring hollow.
"I don’t believe him — I don't believe that he's sorry," said Madison Curup.
His wife, Sarah Curup, had similar sentiments.
"From a customer perspective, nobody's talked to us," she said. "We're trying to just communicate. That would be a really great first step. And all lines of communication have vanished, they've totally ceased. That's quite concerning."
Editor's note: Sun Badger Solar has been a Wisconsin Public Radio business sponsor.