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Honolulu’s City Council has a choice to make this July. Will it adopt forward-looking requirements for builders, giving residents access to clean, affordable energy in buildings that reflect Hawai‘i’s culture and climate—and also help this vulnerable island state meet its climate goals? Or will the Council bow to the interests of natural gas companies, with costlier, dirtier results?
Up for consideration is the city’s building code. Building codes set basic requirements for builders and developers as they create new homes and buildings, which will then often last for at least fifty years. Honolulu’s administration would like to save energy by bringing its code into line with the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code, a model code recently adopted by the state. Honolulu is also proposing to add some specific local amendments to get the city ready for a clean-energy future.
A Future that Gets it Right the First Time
The proposed amendments up for adoption by the City Council are not only climate-friendly, they’re commonsense. They’ll protect residents from being stuck with higher energy and maintenance costs year after year; close an egregious and long-standing loophole around solar hot water heating; and support the growing adoption of electric vehicles. The proposed amendments should also create significant island-wide benefits in the form of new jobs and cleaner air.
The requirements proposed, though important, are also the minimum needed for Hawaii to meet its ambitious climate goals.
As an island state, if Hawai‘i uses fossil fuels to meet its energy needs, it must import every drop of oil and liquified natural gas. Doing this—across thousands of miles—costs more on many levels: the infrastructure needed, the operating costs, the high carbon intensity of the fuel and its infrastructure, the high risks of spills, and the associated pollution.
But there’s another way. Solar hot water and renewably supplied electric vehicles are not only cheaper to run, but they avoid the health and safety consequences of fossil fuel alternatives and the need for costly imports.
Three Updated Features for New Homes and Buildings
Structures Reflective of Honolulu’s Tropical Climate
The proposed building code amendments would promote naturally cooled homes and buildings, and use a point system that rewards efficient appliances, large lanais, and compact homes. This would encourage the use of simple building measures like fans, additional window glazing, and shaded reflective walls.
The best part? These improvements would cut residents’ utility energy bills in half.
Solar-powered Water Heating, Again
This new code would also require developers to install solar hot-water-heating systems in most newly constructed single-family homes, closing a longstanding loophole while taking full advantage of O‘ahu’s abundant sunshine.
While the state has required this for over a decade, a loophole has made the requirement functionally moot. Essentially the state’s Energy Office gave out over 6,500 exemptions statewide despite the Legislature’s written directives that variances “will be rarely, if ever, exercised or granted.”
With the loophole closed, residents could expect to avoid the equivalent of 26 - 47 barrels of imported oil and save between $4,200 and $8,800 over a typical water heater lifetime (15 years).
Access to Electric Vehicle Charging
Honolulu residents are more than ready for electric vehicles, with O‘ahu seeing among the highest take-up rates of electric vehicles (EVs) across the United States. By 2030, the City anticipates 22,000 EVs on its streets. But residents, especially renters, can’t do it all themselves—their housing infrastructure needs to support vehicle charging.
Honolulu’s updated building code would provide this much-needed support by requiring homes and businesses to support the transition to clean electric vehicles:
- Developers of new single-family homes would be required to install EV-capable Level 1 charging—requiring installation of wiring and an electrical panel that can support Level 1 charging, which is a basic 120-volt garage wall outlet that takes 18 hours to charge for a 100-mile range.
- Multifamily and commercial properties would have to provide 25 percent of their parking stalls with EV-ready Level 1 and 2 charging. Level 2 charging is a 240-volt outlet that can supply a 100-mile range in 4 hours.
Why now? Because getting electric vehicle infrastructure right the first time is critical. The cost of rehabbing buildings and parking infrastructure for EVs is far higher than designing it in from the start.
Multiple studies have found that the avoided cost associated with requiring new construction to be EV-ready is $2,000 to $5,000 per parking space. With Honolulu’s proposed amendments, developer will experience avoided costs of between $1.4 million to $3.4 million with EV-readiness in new construction mandates; homeowners and renters will also share the benefits of those avoided costs.
The Alternative Costs More and Endangers O‘ahu’s Residents and Environs
Honolulu has committed to meeting its energy needs with 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Given that new housing and building infrastructure lasts over 50 years, the time to start setting more ambitious guidelines for new construction was 25 years ago… but 2019 will suffice.
Despite these solid reasons and the city’s thorough stakeholder outreach, the bill is not without its detractors.
Ignoring Honolulu’s climate laws, which were designed to provide predictability for investors, Hawaii Gas has recently made some bad investment choices, notably entering into contract with new liquified natural gas providers. Now the gas company wants to impose the cost of its faulty decision-making on the residents of Honolulu by locking in gas infrastructure for hot-water heating in new buildings. In addition to keeping Honolulu from meeting its climate goals, it would require residents to pay higher energy costs year after year.
The company has also rallied some large developers to its side to impose that cost on owners and renters, not only locking them into water heater options that aren’t in their economic interests, but tying their hands from being able to purchase electric vehicles, which similarly have lower operating costs than gas alternatives.
Getting Bill 25 Over the Finish Line
It would be a shame if the narrow interests of a gas corporation and its allies stifled progress and benefits for Honolulu’s residents and its environment. With rising seas, a worsening hurricane season, struggling coral reefs, and varying supplies of drinking water, the state is already feeling the effects of climate change.
Thankfully, Hawai‘i is naturally poised with abundant sunshine to make these solutions a no-brainer. Plus, passing Bill 25 is a critical step to help Honolulu meet its climate goals.
Interested in helping Bill 25 over the finish line? Express your support to City Council here and show up at City Council when the bill is slated to be heard before the Committee on Zoning, Planning and Housing, which is currently planned for July 25.