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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 14, 2008

Hawaii may mandate solar water heaters

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

SENATE BILL 644

Would require: The installation of solar thermal energy devices as the primary water-heating system in single-family homes built after Jan. 1, 2010, where practical. Would restrict the solar thermal energy system tax credit to homes built before 2010.

What's next: The bill faces review by the House Economic Development and Business Concerns Committee.

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With the price of oil surpassing $100 a barrel, state lawmakers are taking a serious look at requiring new homes in Hawai'i to have solar water-heating systems.

Two House committees yesterday advanced a bill that would require the installation of solar thermal water heaters in single-family homes built after Jan. 1, 2010. It also would restrict the current state solar thermal energy system tax credit to homes built before 2010.

"With these high (oil) prices and the uncertainty of state revenues, it justifies a real close look at a mandate," said House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee Chairwoman Hermina Morita.

If the legislation becomes law, Hawai'i would be the first state with such a mandate, according to the Sierra Club Hawai'i chapter.

The proposal is opposed by the building and solar industry, which say in part that the mandate would unfairly drive up costs for home buyers. Opponents also say such a mandate is unnecessary because many developers are offering solar water-heating systems as a standard feature or as an option.

But supporters of the bill said requiring solar in new homes would be a critical move in reducing Hawai'i's use of fossil fuels, which contribute to global climate change, and that it would save millions of dollars a year on imported oil. They also say most new homes in Hawai'i do not use solar and that most solar water-heating systems pay for themselves in energy savings within three to seven years.

QUALITY ISSUE CITED

About 25 percent of all homes in Hawai'i have solar water-heating systems, according to the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, which said in part that a mandate would jeopardize the quality of systems installed.

Morita said electric water-heating tanks account for 30 percent to 35 percent of a home's electric bill. She said if the cost of installing a solar water heater is included in the mortgage for a new home, the savings from the lowered electricity costs given the high price of oil could surpass the added monthly cost for the system.

"The resulting savings alone are good enough incentives rather than having the government subsidize more than its share," she said.

Morita noted the bill requires solar thermal devices to be installed by a licensed installer.

Under the bill, certain homes would be exempt if they're in an area with little sun, installation is too expensive or if an efficient substitute renewable-energy device is installed.

Sierra Club Hawai'i chapter director Jeff Mikulina said there's ample sun in Hawai'i to make solar thermal systems effective, saying an average 1,100-square-foot rooftop soaks up the energy equivalent of about 15 gallons of gasoline a day. He said even with current tax incentives, many new homes are not installing solar water-heating systems.

Israel required all new homes to be equipped with solar water heaters in 1957, and Spain enacted a similar mandate last year, Mikulina said. The Navy also has been building its new homes in Hawai'i with solar thermal systems, he said.

But HECO said solar may not be cost-effective for smaller families who buy new homes, and that a mandate would prevent new home buyers from benefiting from the electric utility rebate and state tax credit for solar water heaters. That would increase the price of a solar water heating system to a new homeowner by about $2,600, based on an average system cost of $5,600, HECO said.

AFFORDABILITY FEARS

Karen Nakamura, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, said a mandate would unfairly burden new home buyers, with the additional cost possibly disqualifying some people from owning a home. She said the industry delivers up to 6,000 new homes a year and questioned why lawmakers are looking at new home construction when there are already 400,000 existing homes.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Gary Hooser last year, passed the Senate last session but stalled in the House. The bill carried over to this session and has at least for now been revived with yesterday's approval from the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and the Human Services and Housing Committee.

The bill must clear several hurdles this session before reaching the governor's office, including passing the House Economic Development and Business Concerns Committee and Finance Committee.

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.


Correction: Testimony submitted by Hawaiian Electric Co. pointed out five concerns with a legislative bill that would require the installation of solar thermal water heaters in single-family homes built after Jan. 1, 2010. However, HECO did not take an official position on the bill. A previous version of this story stated otherwise.

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