Bloomberg investigative reporter Esmé E. Deprez recently bought a home with solar panels. During the purchase process, Deprez took a deep dive into the complicated dynamics involved.
Right before entering escrow, Deprez and her husband learned that the previous homeowner did not own the solar array. It belonged to a third-party owner, TPO, Sunrun Inc., also the largest provider of residential solar in the U.S. Sunrun puts the panels up, connects them to the home, and reaps tax incentives for owning the system, while the homeowner then pays Sunrun for electricity, rather than the utility company. Deprez found that the system was tied to the home's title, and, if purchased, Deprez would have to assume the lease arrangement with Sunrun from the previous owner, which the company says is the course of action for 94 percent of its customers.
I asked Sunrun if it would take back the system to put it on someone else’s house. It wouldn’t. The only way to get out from under the obligation, as far as we could tell, was to prepay the balance on the remaining 18-plus years’ worth of payments and buy the hardware outright. The price: $27,300. By mid-February, we’d reached a standstill. We wouldn’t complete the deal if it meant taking on the obligation to Sunrun. The trust managing [the seller's] assets was refusing to buy out the system. Sunrun was blocking the sale via a document called a UCC filing, which showed the company had a financial claim on the property. (Sunrun disputes how consumer advocates characterize UCC filings: “effective liens.”) Our lender was refusing to fund our loan without a resolution.
A few months later, regulators would vote to make California the first U.S. state to require solar panels on almost all new homes starting in 2020—meaning TPO solar will soon become a lot more common in California.