Counting the Cost

I won’t be silenced by the solar industry

Julianne Malveaux | 4/20/2017, midnight

The solar industry wants me to be quiet. I wonder why? As a journalist and political commentator, who covers issues important to the African American community and other marginalized communities, I have taken on powerful forces over the years. I have provided a voice for underrepresented communities and engaged both the private and public sector, and I always strive to be accurate and respectful. After all, how can I demand civility and fairness from others, if I don’t practice it myself?

Earlier this year, I wrote a commentary about a rooftop solar business, and expressed concerns that some bad actors in the industry were misleading consumers. I focused on three aspects that worried me: First, that new customers may be unaware that the panels can cost upwards of $15,000 and can generate an additional lien against a home, making it harder to sell. Second, rooftop solar salespeople often tell customers that they will save a lot of money on their utility bill, which is not always true. Third, salespeople engaging in high-pressure tactics often do so in the hope that a customer will sign a contract before they understand all of the complexities of a long-term financial agreement.

About a week later, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which represents the rooftop solar industry in Washington, D.C., wrote a response to my commentary. I didn’t fully agree with SEIA, but I respected their right to voice their opinion. I saw their response and was hopeful that going forward the industry would take more steps to protect minority consumers. I decided to move on and continue writing about the other issues important to me.

However, in the last few weeks, I have become a target of an intimidation campaign led by SEIA. Specifically, a gentleman named Michael Schmidt, a senior vice president at Crosscut Strategies, who claims to be an agent of SEIA, has repeatedly called and emailed me and my staff. In one call, he even asked a staff member why I had not responded to him, as if I was afraid to respond.

In his correspondence to a woman in my office, Mr. Schmidt states that I wrote, “that solar companies are targeting communities of color.” Mr. Schmidt went on to write that: “The SEIA team finds this abhorrent and they wanted to follow up with her about what she knows, since the column didn’t provide details. SEIA takes this issue and consumer protection generally very seriously. Would it be possible to arrange a quick call between Dr. Malveaux and SEIA’s general counsel about this?”

I believe that Mr. Schmidt’s suggestion that I speak with SEIA’s general counsel, Tom Kimbis, is an attempt to assert that my comment about “targeting communities of color” could be libelous. If SEIA wanted to provide me with facts to change my mind, why couldn’t Mr. Schmidt provide me with that information, or connect me with SEIA’s communications or policy experts? The suggestion that I speak with SEIA’s in-house attorney was designed to intimidate.