For the past couple meetings, Bill 51(2012) has been an issue that has taken up a lot of time, and for good reason. Introduced by Councilmember Ikaika Anderson, it would change the way that photovoltaic (PV) systems on houses (i.e. solar energy) would be inspected and approved.
The issue arose because of a huge backlog of people waiting for a City inspector to come out and verify proper installation before being able to use it, and the argument is that the homeowners who paid a lot of money to have their PV system installed are having to wait a long time for these inspections, and therefore have to wait to get the savings these systems may offer.
While at first glimpse this may seem like a good idea, in listening to the testimony throughout the past couple meetings I’ve come to see a common trend in bills like this one and also previous bills introduced by Anderson such as Bill 5 (regulating commercial activities on the weekends at certain beach parks) and Bill 11 (regulating more commercial activities at beach parks).
In the case of Bills 5, 11, and 51 it seems to be a matter of the City dropping the ball on enforcing or following through with its responsibilities already assigned to it. In the case of Bills 5 and 11, much of the testimony focused on how these bills won’t really help anything, as most of the things they’re trying to prohibit have been illegal for some time now (such as tour busses and unpermitted commercial activity). It seems to me that these bills have an enforcement problem that Mr. Anderson is trying to solve by more legislation. While creating blanket legislation banning all commercial activity outright could solve the problem, it is at the expense of the legitimate companies who have been permitted and conducting legal business for many years, whose businesses are patronized by not just tourists but kama’aina alike.
Bill 51 is similar in this regard. Testimony from City inspectors and also private electricians reveal that the PV industry is a boom market right now, and as a result many businesses are installing PV systems in ways that skirt the law or outright disobey it, such as by getting unlicensed, unskilled day laborers to install the systems under the name of a licensed electrician. Not all companies are doing this but the ones that are get inspected and fail, up to nearly 50% of the time, according to one City inspector. This causes the inspectors to have to make multiple visits, multiple inspections, which hurts all PV installers, legitimate or not, and creates the backlog that exists today. Testimony also revealed that this is a very dangerous situation, as PV systems are electrical components that can cause injury or death if not installed correctly. In the case of a fire, caused by the PV system or not, fire departments around the nation are learning that spraying water onto a functioning PV system is dangerous for firefighters and presents more difficulty in extinguishing the fire until the PV system stops producing electricity, by safety switch or by cutting wires. Also, many homes in Hawaii have been in danger because the PV systems are too much for old electrical boxes or wiring to handle, causing red-hot glowing boxes or fires. To add insult to injury, City inspectors also testified that the way their workload of inspections is broken up is inefficient and a major part of the problem of inspections being so backlogged.
Instead of looking into these problems and the management of City inspectors to solve inefficient assignment of inspections, and instead of going after the illegal/illegitimate/under-qualified installers of PV systems, Anderson is simply trying to push legislation that could put some lives in serious jeopardy. In effect, this bill would remove the only safeguard currently in place to stop awful things from happening due to shady solar companies just cashing in on a boom market. It’s understandable however, as it was a request from his constituents, and I’m sure Anderson nor many others know about the current situation of these shady installers or the apparent management problems within the Department of Planning and Permitting in the City, so hopefully this bill will bring these issues to the forefront to get remedied instead of deciding to allow self-inspections or third-party inspections – something which we all know can easily be fudged, especially on a small island like Oahu (think safety check inspections).
We can see that with Bills 5, 11, and 51 that new legislation isn’t necessary – current enforcement and better managing of current practices could solve enough of these problems to make everybody happy instead of taking a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach. What I fear, however, is that hubris will get the best of Mr. Anderson, and like Bill 5 and 11, he will push and push Bill 51 through in order to make himself look a little better before this year’s election.
This shouldn’t be the aim of Government at any level. More legislation should be a last-resort, after making sure that no current legislation or policy can solve the problem. In the case of Lani Kai, it sounds like the City screwed up in giving out permits (even though they haven’t since 2004), and on top of that other ordinances governing commercial activity aren’t being enforced. In the case of Bill 51, the finger can again be pointed at non-enforcement/reporting and to poor management of employees on the City’s part.
In any case, writing more legislation that could hurt local business and potentially kill local families is not the way to go. If Bill 51 passes and you’re planning on getting a PV system sometime soon, just be sure that whoever installs it does it right. Or just call up one of these City inspectors who seem to really know their stuff, don’t have a reason to allow shoddy work, and might also be out of a job in the near future.