By Julianne Malveaux
September 16, 2020
Election Day is only about two months away, and Democrats are hoping to capture the White House and even the Senate, which could mean a renewed vigor to tackling climate change.
As we face one of the hottest years ever, the worst California fire season in decades, and perhaps the worst hurricane season ever, the threat of climate change will resonate with the American people. This is why the Democratic response to climate change is robust and includes a national investment to help people install solar panels on their roofs to reduce their use of electricity made from dirty fossil fuels.
Over the last few years, I have written about rooftop solar companies, and my concerns that the industry has at times taken advantage of their customers, with misleading tactics designed to promise savings that never materialize. For doing so, some people in the industry tried to intimidate me. After making this effort public, I received an apology from the industry. I accepted the apology. But the broader problem with rooftop solar companies, is that their policies and decisions that adversely impact the most vulnerable populations remain in place.
In fact, the New Mexico Attorney General sued Vivint – one of the nation’s largest providers of rooftop solar – accusing them of: “engaging in unfair and unconscionable business practices…” Now, Vivint is being bought by Sunrun, America’s largest rooftop solar company. But sadly, it doesn’t seem that Sunrun is much better. In fact, the Better Business Bureau recently found Sunrun was using deceptive advertising and that investing in solar panels only “offersa potential, rather than a guarantee, for savings.”
Because some of the unethical rooftop solar companies that pursue profit over people often target customers from our nation’s most vulnerable communities, their victims are often black and brown consumers. Isn’t it a cruel irony that minorities and other underserved communities suffer the greatest from climate change and are also the victims of companies trying to prevent global warming?
As Democrats seek environmental justice, we must also be aware of the lobbying and public relations efforts of the rooftop solar industry. Especially those that might not be on the level. Consider a group called the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) which purports to be a “Watchdog exposing the attacks on renewable energy and countering misinformation by fossil fuel interests.”
However, an in-depth investigation by the left-leaning Campaign for Accountability, found that EPI is actually “a dark money group: it does not appear to have nonprofit status, it is not registered with any relevant secretary of state, and no one admits to funding it.” And, “EPI may be simply the creation of a public relations firm.” Not surprisingly, Campaign for Accountability found that the public relations firm that is linked to EPI, is also tied to the Solar Energy Industry Association; the same group that tried to compel me to provide a different narrative about the industry during my previous efforts to hold the industry leaders accountable.
When you “Google” the EPI, the second and third search result are efforts from the Campaign for Accountability to expose EPI. What is so shocking to me, is that the media still describe them as environmental watchdogs, or fail to mention their connections to the rooftop solar industry. In fact, an article from Reuters just this month, categorized EPI as: “a group that advocates for a transition to clean energy.” Let’s be clear, this is not giving the reader a full understanding of EPI.
At the end of the day – and regardless of EPI – it is my hope that the rooftop solar industry focuses on being better corporate citizens and stop with the high-pressure sales tactics. Keep in mind, solar panels often cost around $20,000; so you have to save $20,000 on your electric bills, before you even break even on your investment. I would implore industry salespeople to do a better job of explaining this reality to their potential customers.
Finally, Democrats and a future Biden administration, must make sure that any environmental policies they advocate for and implement – which promote rooftop solar – are done with strong consumer protections in mind. Groups, like EPI, that are tied to some of the bad actors that often create more inequities for underserved and minority communities, must be held accountable. If Democrats fail to protect those vulnerable consumers, our environmental efforts cannot be considered a success.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, educator and author.