BIG WIN in climate change fight in Hawaiʻi

Yesterday in a big victory for Hawaiʻi’s clean energy goals, the Environmental Court ruled that the Hawaiʻi Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism was wrong to grant nearly all requests for variances from the Solar Water Heater Mandate. By issuing thousands of variances, the agency has reinforced Hawaiʻi’s reliance on fossil fuels—to our collective peril—instead of empowering residents to move to clean, renewable energy sources that will reduce their energy costs.

Earthjustice, Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, and Hawaiʻi Solar Energy Association after the ruling.

“This ruling is powerful because it is helping Hawaiʻi follow through on its commitments to protect the climate,” said Marti Townsend for the Sierra Club.  “We know that gas-powered water heaters are more polluting and more costly than solar alternatives and we should have phased them out of new home construction years ago.”

Hawaiʻi is already seeing the impacts of climate change: eroding beaches and coastal roads, rain bombs and detrimental flooding, and rising sea levels and temperatures. These impacts can no longer be ignored and we are now at a critical time where we must massively reduce fossil fuel emissions. Hawaiʻi has some of the most progressive clean energy goals in the nation. In order to reach these goals, Hawaiʻi as a whole—including our state agencies—must take all the right equitable steps to move away from dirty energy sources. The Solar Water Heater Mandate is part of that progress, requiring that all new single family homes instal solar water heaters instead of gas. Yesterday’s court ruling upholds the original intent of the Solar Water Heater Mandate and supports a smoother transition to renewable energy.

The court ruled in favor of the Hawaiʻi Solar Energy Association and the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, citing the “wholesale” nature of variances issued by the agency. Advocates for the mandate pointed to the legislative intent in the bill that made clear the gas appliance variance “…will be rarely, if ever, exercised…”.

Since the mandate’s implementation in 2010, nearly 99% of the 7,000 variances applied for have been approved by the agency—over one-third of all newly constructed homes. This includes subdivision developments, even though they are not actually eligible for this variance. The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism granted most requests as long as the applicant indicated that a second gas appliance was to be installed in the residence.

It is estimated that Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s failure to properly screen variances from the Solar Water Heater Mandate has cost the solar industry $36 million so far, and would have likely been granted for over 15,000 new homes in sunny Hoʻopili and Koa Ridge on Oʻahu. Constructing new subdivisions dependent on natural gas, locks residents into relying on fossil fuels for the long term instead of facilitating their transition to clean renewable energy. This dependence—in a time when fossil fuel use should be minimized and in places with an abundance of sun—undermines the mandate’s environmental benefits and unnecessarily raises energy bills for thousands of new homeowners.