As a progressive who worked hard to help get Secretary Hillary Clinton elected, it is challenging for me to accept Donald Trump as president. But he won. At least for now, I have to make the best of a bad situation. Which means progressives like me will have to both resist the Trump administration’s odious policies, and also pressure — and even cooperate with — the administration to implement policies that reflect our worldview.
This is why I was interested to see a recent letter sent to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) by three Democratic Members of Congress. Signed by Congressmen Henry Cuellar of Texas, Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, it urges the CFPB to look into bad actors operating in the rooftop solar industry.
What we are talking about here are those salespeople that go door to door and bombard consumers with telemarketing calls, urging them to put solar panels on their rooftops. Now, for some people, rooftop solar makes both environmental and financial sense. This is why I generally support the industry.
But what concerns me — and those three Democratic congressmen — are the shady operators that mislead potential customers about the cost saving benefits of installing those panels. The letter outlined three major concerns.
First, that new customers may be unaware that the panels can cost upwards of $15,000 and that they will have to pay that money back. This purchase can generate an additional lien against their home, which also decreases its value and makes it harder to sell. For those Americans barely getting by, and counting on every dollar of equity in their house, this is problematic. This is especially true if they hope to sell their home to fund retirement.
Second, salespeople sometimes tell customers that they will save a lot of money on their utility bill because the price of electricity from utility companies is going up. That simply is not accurate. In reality, many people’s electric bills are coming down, stabilizing or going up only single digits. This is because of cheap and abundant natural gas used to produce electricity. Solar panel customers don’t see any savings on their electric bills, but have to pay back the cost of buying or leasing the panels. Every month, people are out of pocket more — not less — money.
Third, the letter to the CFPB points out that many of these solar panel sales pitches include promises of “no money down” and other high-pressure sales tactics. Anyone who has ever dealt with a shady salesperson — whether for solar panels or a used car — knows that these tactics are not the tools of an honest broker.
Plus, as the Wall Street Journal exposed this January, we know many solar panel salespeople are pitching so-called government loans that can be used to help make homes more energy efficient. In reality, these Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE loans, are a type of loan which gives creditors top priority on securing repayment — even priority over a mortgage. No wonder, according to the Journal, that PACE loans are likely “the fastest-growing type of financing in the U.S.” The title of the article should make us all fearful: “America’s Fastest-Growing Loan Category Has Eerie Echoes of Subprime Crisis.”
While there have been rumblings that the Trump administration would curtail the CFPB, the congressmen’s letter illustrates why this regulatory agency is important. Action against these shady rooftop solar companies, who seem to target communities of color, is one way that this administration could showcase its commitment to the working people who supported it. Indeed, as President Trump hosted a “listening session” with some black Republicans “in honor” of Black History Month, he made no specific policy commitments. It would have been fantastic had he taken this small issue on, signaling that he understands the exploitation that some communities experience because of this solar chicanery.
The solar industry generates more than 200,000 jobs across the nation. While Donald Trump might not be concerned about producing clean energy, he says he cares about protecting American workers. That is why I am urging his administration, and the CFPB, to take steps to eliminate the bad actors in rooftop solar. Unless we do, people will catch on and walk away from solar. That will hurt our economy and our fight to beat climate change. Hopefully one out of two of those concerns is enough for the new administration to take action to protect consumers.
Julianne Malveaux’s latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available on Amazon.com.