Homes use loophole in solar-heater law

NAWILIWILI — The state Legislature in 2004 passed a law requiring new homes to have a solar water heating system. But at least half of those new homes on Kaua‘i and the Big Island are deflecting more than the sun’s rays; they are deflecting the law — and they’re doing it legally.

“This is a major energy conservation matter,” said Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura during a Sept. 7 council meeting.

But rather than approve an initial request from Yukimura to include in the 2012 Hawai‘i State Association of Counties legislative package a proposal to address the loophole, the council unanimously referred it to its Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

The state law — designed to reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere — somehow has different ripple effects on different islands.

Fifty percent of new homes on Kaua‘i and the Big Island meet the variance for the exemption, compared to only 5 percent in Maui and Honolulu counties, Yukimura said.

The Hawaiian Islands, she said, are 90 percent dependent on fossil fuels for energy, and hot-water heating accounts for a high percentage of a household budget.

“Solar water heating in single-family homes is the low-hanging fruit — it is the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to get off of fossil fuels,” said Yukimura, adding that after a pay-back time of five to seven years, it allows a household to have free hot water.

Even if a home is built with the goal of becoming a rental unit, the landlord would also benefit from it, since solar water heating raises the value of a home, she said.

“This is a very good and important bill,” Yukimura said. “It will help a good law become even better.”


Sharry Glass can feel the sun’s heat on her skin everyday — even indoors.

“We’ve had solar in our home, and we’ve had it for the last 24 years,” she said. “We are blessed with sunlight here.”

Glass said there are other countries in the world that have more solar heating systems than we do, despite not having the solar resources we have on Kaua‘i.

In the near future, she said, solar energy is the answer to heating water, because it is simple, affordable for new constructions, can be included in the mortgage and it is 30 percent tax deductible.

“Solar hot water is simply pipes, glass, box,” she said. “It’s very simple.”

Glass and her husband, Steve Glass, spoke on behalf of Apollo Kaua‘i, a local group promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and the use of appropriate renewable energy resources at local and state levels.

Steve Glass said Apollo Kaua‘i was pleased the state law requiring solar water heaters in new homes had passed but was “disappointed” it contained variances that allowed some people to opt out on behalf of propane gas.

At the time the act had passed, he said, there was no available gas-heater backup. “Now that gas backup is available on the market.”

Steve Glass said Kaua‘i’s and Big Island’s 50-percent variance rate is bringing the statewide variance percentage up to 25 percent.

A solar water heating system that accommodates a family of four costs about $5,000 to $7,000, according to Steve Glass, and can be paid off in five to seven years, leaving the household with free hot water for the remainder of a 15-year life expectancy for the system.

Yukimura said there’s also supporting testimony from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the office that administers the variances. “They’re seeing first hand the impacts of it.”

She said that after addressing new constructions, there will also be an issue of retrofitting.

Not so fast

Despite apparent major benefits, the proposal raised a few questions from some council members.

“I certainly think we want to bind ourselves being able to get all of the right data for this because you are asking us to eliminate people’s choices,” Chair Jay Furfaro said. “I’m not one way or the other. My bigger concern at this point is taking away people’s choices.”

Councilman KipuKai Kuali‘i said so much is happening right now in terms of other renewable energy options, such as photovoltaic and hydro energy.

“Why not just make sure we have the options available to our citizens and not necessarily lock them to one thing?” he said.

Sharry Glass said Kaua‘i has a very small power grid compared to grids on the Mainland, which can easily incorporate “all sorts of clean energy alternatives.”

Plus, she said, officials have told her that the Kaua‘i Channel is too deep to be part of a statewide grid. “We are on our own here.”

Her husband added that he wanted to clarify that Apollo Kaua‘i supports all kinds of renewable energy, including wind and hydro. “It’s just that we are specifically addressing this loophole in the state bill right here.”

Interisland underwater power cables between O‘ahu and Molokai or Lanai have edged close to fruition. Hawaiian Electric Company has for years tried to reach an agreement with Molokai or Lanai in which one of those islands would supply wind-generated energy to O‘ahu via an underwater cable. Closure on a project on Molokai has failed, mostly because of local opposition; they feel they would not benefit from the project.

And on a smaller scale, underwater cables are already a reality in Hawai‘i: An offshore geothermal project on the Big Island contributes to the island’s power grid.

The committee is scheduled to pick up the issue on Sept. 28.

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