Judge: DBEDT must adhere to solar water heater mandate


Environmentalist and renewable energy advocates are hailing a court decision Tuesday ordering the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to follow state law mandating all new single-family homes include solar water heaters and to consider variances for gas water heaters only on a case-by-case basis.

The ruling, made from the bench by Judge Jeffrey Crabtree, senior environmental judge for the Honolulu Circuit, came in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of Hawaii Solar Energy Association and the Sierra Club against DBEDT’s State Energy Office. The court ruled that the law grants the agency discretion to consider variances individually, and to deny requests that fail to meet the legislature’s stated policy goals.


The statute was originally enacted 11 years ago, but DBEDT approved — according to Earthjustice “rubber-stamped” — almost all variance requests for gas water heaters, totaling more than 6,500 exemptions to date. Earthjustice said several large subdivision developments on Oahu, including 15,000 total units, were seeking such exemptions in the foreseeable future.

“Closing this exemption represents a massive victory for common sense and clean energy in Hawaii,” said Will Giese, HSEA’s executive director, in a statement. “Solar water heating is a no-brainer solution, which is why it was mandated in the first place, and it generates huge upside benefits for Hawaii residents well into the future.”

DBEDT spokesman Alan Yonan said the department “was making a good faith effort to follow the statute, which includes gas tankless instantaneous water heaters as one of four options available for applicants seeking a variance.”

According to Yonan, the attorney general will decide whether to appeal the ruling. He said any future plans regarding the solar mandate “would be contingent on whether the ruling is appealed.”

Marco Mangelsdorf, owner of ProVision solar and spokesman for Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative, called Crabtree’s decision, which will be issued in writing later, as “a superlative ruling.”

“There were, in my view, too many exemptions granted,” Mangelsdorf said Wednesday. “And we need to continue to make as rapid progress as we can toward the ambitious renewable energy rules that our government has set.”

Hawaii last year became the first state to establish a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

HSEA estimates DBEDT’s failure to properly review variance requests from the solar water heater mandate has cost Hawaii’s solar industry about $36 million in economic and job benefits to date, as well as millions in energy savings for Hawaii homeowners and electric consumers. The legislature also found that the solar water heater mandate would avoid 10,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

“The court’s ruling clarifying DBEDT’s discretion to deny gas variances vindicates the original intent of the solar water heater mandate and helps Hawaii fulfill its leadership role in achieving a clean energy future,” said Earthjustice attorney Leinaala Ley. “Blanket exemptions for fossil fuel infrastructure never made sense, and are simply untenable in today’s time of climate crisis.”

Marti Townsend of the Sierra Club said the ruling “enables Hawaii to follow through on its commitments to protect our environment and climate.”

“We know that gas-fueled water heaters are more polluting and more costly than solar alternatives, and we should have phased them out of new home construction years ago,” she said.

Mangelsdorf said he’s seen a commitment from energy stakeholders, including local power utilities, plus the Public Utilities Commission “in accelerating the transition to renewable energy.”

“On our island alone there was recent approval to adding 60 megawatts … of new solar facilities on the west side,” he said. “… Moving in the direction of solar, plus storage, as (Hawaii Electric Light Co., Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative) are, is going to — sooner rather than later — have a significant impact on the reduction of fossil fuels that continue to come into this island to fuel our power needs.”

Yonan said DBEDT “is committed to helping build an energy system for Hawaii that is clean, diversified and resilient.”


“Toward this end, DBEDT continues to work collaboratively with a broad cross section of energy-sector stakeholders to find cost-effective solutions to the challenges facing our clean energy transformation,” he said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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