Solar water heater bill under review

Hawai‘i could soon become the first state to require the installation of solar water heater systems on new single-family homes.

Senate Bill 644 is currently under review by Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration.

The legislation — introduced by state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i — prohibits the issuance of a building permit on or after Jan. 1, 2010, for single-family homes that do not have solar water heaters.

The measure also directs the state Public Utilities Commission to establish standards for the systems and restricts tax credits for the solar heating units.

Last month, the bill passed unanimously in the House and 23-2 in the Senate.

“The public benefits of this bill are huge,” Hooser said. “There’s possible economic benefits, environmental benefits and the benefits of getting off oil.”

Hooser feels the cumulative benefit of the bill is if other states follow Hawai‘i’s lead and implement similar laws of their own.

Supporters of the bill claim the solar water heaters, which cost roughly $5,000, will pay for themselves in a short period of time.

With residential utility rates at 41 cents per kilowatt-hour on Kaua‘i, a solar water heater could be paid back in 2.8 years, according to state Rep. Mina Morita, D-14th District.

“What this means is after 2.8 years, a family of four on Kaua‘i would be putting approximately $150 per month in their pockets from the savings in their electricity bill for the next 12.2 years for a total savings of $21,960,” Morita said. “Furthermore, if the expense of the installation of a solar water heater system is included in the mortgage of a new home, given the high and unpredictable cost of oil, the savings from the lowered electricity costs will exceed the additional monthly payments for the solar water heater system.”

Currently, only one in four homes in Hawai‘i have solar water heaters.

Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter, said the bill is the defining pro-environment bill of 2008 and the single largest step the Legislature took to increase Hawai‘i’s energy security.

“The Solar Roofs Act will provide far-reaching environmental and economic benefits for Hawai‘i and is the type of transformative policy that will help define our clean energy future,” Mikulina said in a memo to the governor’s office. “The benefits of the Solar Roofs Act will ripple across our islands.”

Hooser, Morita and Mikulina all said main opponents of this bill are in the building and development industry.

“It’s true many in the building industry have opposed the measure,” Hooser said. “They don’t like mandates.”

Mikulina attributed the opposition to a general ideological dislike for mandates.

“The measure contains reasonable exceptions to the solar requirement to address some of the concerns from developers and the gas company,” he said.

Mikulina suggested a waiver could be issued if there is a poor solar resource or if a solar water heater will become more costly than an electric heater over time.

“Rarely does the state have the opportunity to take the lead in the nation and forward a policy that addresses so many needs at once,” Mikulina said. “The need for reduced carbon emissions, the need to reduce the cost of home ownership and the need for good local jobs in the clean energy field.”

The governor has until Monday to notify the Legislature of any bills she is considering vetoing. She must take action on all bills by July 8. Any bills not signed or vetoed will automatically become law without her signature.

“I hope the governor will see the benefits and listen to the majority that supports this bill,” Hooser said.

Mikulina encouraged those who support the bill to contact the governor by e-mail at governor.lingle@hawaii.gov

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or rgehrlein@kauaipubco.com

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