Council looks to limit variances in solar law

LIHU‘E — Three weeks after a 5-2 vote defeated her request to address a loophole in a 2008 state mandate on solar water heating, Kaua‘i County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura recharged her proposal and is asking her colleagues to consider her request from a different angle.

Although the matter was deferred Wednesday until Nov. 16, it was apparent that other council members may be inclined to support the new proposal.

The problem, brought to light by Councilman Tim Bynum, was that the legislative intent of Act 204 — requiring new homes to be equipped with solar water heating — does not seem to align with the language in the legislation.

At the heart of the controversy is a variance in the law which is allowing half of new homes to be equipped with tankless gas water heaters — slightly cheaper than solar water heater to install but costlier to run.

Yukimura’s new request would not eliminate the variance, as previously proposed. Instead, it would allow only end-owners to apply for the variance, excluding developers who build turn-key homes from seeking on-demand gas systems.

In the council’s previous discussions, she said, there was support for the concept that the end owner of a newly built home should be the one making decisions on installing solar or tankless gas water heaters.

A relatively small difference on the installation price may be a no-brainer when a new homeowner considers having nearly free hot water or having to pay $40 to $60 monthly for gas. But if a contractor builds a home with the intent of selling or renting, the end homeowner or occupier is left out of the decision.

Yukimura said her proposal simply implements the intention of the law as stated in Act 155, passed by the Legislature in 2009 to clarify an earlier law.

By implementing the intention of Act 155 — the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative — it would allow the intention to become enforceable, according to Yukimura.

“It’s very clear from the intention expressed in Act 155 that the desire of the Legislature was to allow for this variance, which is the gas on demand variance, that it would only be allowed if the end owner applied for it,” she said.

Other variances would still allow for tankless gas water heaters, given that the applicant for a variance proves there is insufficient sun.

In the case of homes being built for rental purposes, when it would be impossible to know for sure who would be the end user, the default system should be solar water heaters, Yukimura said.

The law is statewide, but on Kaua‘i and Big Island the variance has been used 50 percent of the time. In the rest of the state, it’s been used 5 percent of the time. O‘ahu developers, and the military there, seem to know solar water heaters increase the value of a home, Yukimura said.

Bynum said he heard from officials at the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — the government agency that grants the variances — would like to apply the law but have no authority.

Councilman Mel Rapozo, who voted against Yukimura’s first request, said he would support this “very reasonable” proposal simply because it brings the intent of bill into the ordinance.

The council’s Intergovernmental Committee unanimously approved Yukimura’s request to include the proposal in the 2012 Kaua‘i County Legislative Package.

The full council is expected to make a decision on Nov. 16.

Visit www.kauai.gov for more information and upcoming meeting agendas.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.

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