Solar versus gas

LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i County Council has decided that choice and money may speak louder than the environment when it comes to a state law mandating solar water heaters on new home construction.

In a 5-2 vote Wednesday at the Historic County Building, the legislative body effectively ratified an exemption that has meant a 50 percent rate of failure on Kaua‘i in terms of how often loopholes are used to get around the 2008 law. This is 10 times more than Honolulu and Maui counties, officials said.

A local licensed contractor testified at the meeting, saying he urges most of his customers to install solar water heaters instead of tankless gas water heaters simply because “it makes more sense.”

Del Alexander said when Hawaiians had a problem, they would find a solution based on how it would affect seven generations down the line. The sun’s rays are free, he said.

Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura added that gas prices will likely continue to rise.

Act 204, which originated from a bill introduced by former state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua‘i-Ni‘ihau, requires new single-family and duplex constructions to be fitted with solar water heating systems.

A variance in the state law allows new homes to alternatively be fitted with tankless gas heating, a system with slightly cheaper start-up costs, but tagged with a $40 to $50 monthly bill, as opposed to as cheap as $10 a year for solar water heating.

In Honolulu and Maui counties the variance is allowing about 5 percent of those new homes to be equipped with gas water heating systems. But on Kaua‘i and the Big Island the number of homes using the exemption reaches 50 percent.

Yukimura asked on Sept. 7 that a proposal to amend the law and reduce the variance permits be included in the 2012 Hawai‘i State Association of Counties Legislative Package.

On Sept. 28 the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee unanimously rejected the request from Yukimura, who is not a committee member. Committee member Tim Bynum was absent for personal reasons.

The full council on Wednesday tackled the issue again, and despite new information that start-up costs for solar-water heating is cheaper than presented on Sept. 28, and that the presentation omitted installation costs for tankless gas heaters, the four council members who voted against the request confirmed their position by voting to receive — which effectively shelves the matter without action — Yukimura’s request.

Bynum and Yukimura voted against receiving it, and Council Chair Jay Furfaro voted in silence, which counted toward receiving the communication because that was the majority’s will.

Furfaro said his silent vote was to note that some of the issues addressed during the meeting could be addressed at the council level without the need to be sent to HSAC.

Had the council approved the communication, HSAC President Mel Rapozo would have taken the request to the HSAC meeting. The HSAC in turn would have to unanimously approve Kaua‘i’s request, and then ask state legislators to amend the state law.


A lengthy and detailed presentation on Sept. 28 from The Gas Company compared the cost of a tankless gas heating system versus the cost of a solar water heating system.

A solar water heating system with an estimated 15-year life cycle would cost $12,936, including initial costs, federal credits and annual consumption, according to Richard DeGarmo, director of renewable energy at The Gas Company, a locally operated business owned by a Mainland-based company.

By comparison, he said, a high-efficiency tankless gas heater would cost homeowners $9,601 over the same period with all credits and expenses included.

But when DeGarmo testified Wednesday, he said under questioning that his Sept. 28 testimony didn’t include installation costs for tankless gas heating systems.

Such costs could easily be $2,000, according to Alexander, a licensed contractor with many years of experience installing both tankless gas and solar water heating systems.

DeGarmo said the cost for a solar water heater came from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and that he didn’t know if the cost for installation of solar water heater systems was included in those estimates.

Alexander said a solar water heater system suitable for a family of four costs about $6,000.

But after state and federal incentives, that number could go as low as $2,700 for existing homes and $4,000 for new homes.

Yukimura said that after the disclosures the cost of a solar water heater could be the same or even cheaper than tankless gas systems.

“We are actually excluding choice when we don’t require solar as the standard,” she said. “We are excluding choice for renters and for those who are buying houses after the water system is installed.”


Bynum said the intent of the law is clearly to give consumers a choice.

“If there’s a variance, it should be exercised by the consumer who pays the bill,” he said, adding that developers who build rental units are utilizing the variance.

But Bynum said when he approached DBEDT regarding the variance, he was told that this language is in the legislative intent, not in the act itself.

Councilman KipuKai Kuali‘i said the fact that the variance is being abused by developers is where the problem is.

He proposed having a look at why there has been so many variances on Kaua‘i, and mandating an education about rather than an elimination of choices.

Councilman Mel Rapozo said constantly removing people’s right to chose is a problem. If the county really wants to promote solar water heating, then it should incentivize it by giving tax credits, he said.

Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura said there are a lot of other things in our daily lives that also impact global warming, such as cars, dishwashers and clothes dryers.

“It’s not real cut and dried for me,” she said.

Councilman Dickie Chang said these are tough economic times, and that he still believes government should give people choices.

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