Grant provides low-income families with solar water heaters


HILO — A select number of Hawaii Island low-income families found themselves in hot water this past year, and loving it.

The more than $1 million federal Rural Utilities High Energy Costs Assistance Program that wrapped up on Friday helped to install free solar water heaters in the homes of rural Big Isle families who have found it difficult making ends meet while wrestling with large power bills.

The Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council accepted applications from needy area residents, and the units were paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a partnership with Hawaii Energy, said HCEOC Director of Community Resources Bettie Wagstaff.

The solar water heater program is one that helps to make dramatic cuts in power bills for low-income families, and it keeps paying dividends for years, Wagstaff said.

“You really get a big bang for your buck with solar water heaters, because they last 20 years, at least,” she said.

One woman, who asked that her name not be used, was the recipient of three of the water heater units. A single resident of Kurtistown, she has 17 people under one roof, including her mother, 12 foster teens, and several adopted children. The crowded arrangement made for difficult mornings trying to get everyone showered and ready for school.

“We just didn’t have enough hot water,” she said with a laugh. “I was having to stagger the showers in shifts and keep track of how long they spent in them and all that.”

The situation may have been funny sounding, but the resulting power bills certainly weren’t, she added.

“We were getting power bills of like $1,150 a month, or $1,200 a month,” she said.

On Aug. 15, she received her first power bill since having the units installed, and she was surprised to find she’d saved about $300.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I thought my bill would go down by $100. But it’s made a huge impact. I was thrilled.

“And I didn’t even have them (the heaters) for a full month.”

The grant is only available to residents living within one of 14 specific Census Designated Places with a population of less than 2,500 with residents who made 69 percent of the state median. Those locations include Ocean View, Pahoa, Fern Acres, Eden Roc, Fern Forest, Orchidland, Pepeekeo, Kurtistown, Laupahoehoe, Hawaiian Acres, Honokaa, Leilani Estates, Naalehu and Paauilo.

Announced at the end of 2011, the grant ultimately paid to install 214 solar water heater systems in 172 households on the Big Island, said Brian Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Hawaii Energy, a conservation and efficiency program serving Hawaii, Honolulu and Maui counties.

Fitzgerald said each system has been estimated to conserve an average of 2,066 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. At HELCO’s August rate of 38.37 cents per kWh, that amounts to $793 a year per unit. Islandwide, beneficiaries of the grant will save an estimated total of $169,642.97 a year, he said.

“When it comes to overall energy efficiency, I think one of the most underserved categories is that of lower income families,” he said. “They might be able to afford some CFL bulbs instead of incandescents, but they just can’t afford a solar water heater or an updated refrigerator. By providing them with solar water heaters, it helps to reduce their cost of living, and it helps to contribute to the state’s overall goal of using 70 percent clean energy by 2030.”

According to Wagstaff, the Rural Utilities High Energy Costs Assistance Program has helped to augment another program available to Hawaii Island residents that also helps to install solar water heaters — the U.S. Energy Department’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which installed 106 of the units in area households last year. In addition to the heaters, the WAP also pays for families to replace energy-hogging refrigerators with more efficient models.