Honolulu’s skyline may soon be changing as a result of a new bill that will permit buildings to go taller if they install solar panels on the top.

Building owners will also be allowed to use that extra space, up to 12 feet high, for what city officials call “new rooftop gathering places,” such as urban gardens, lighted recreation rooms or outdoor high-rise lanais.

This unusual measure, Bill 46, would give commercial and multi-family buildings an exemption from prevailing height limits to encourage the installation of more solar panels.

Rooftop solar panels / photovoltaic system installed on adjacent building near Ala Moana Center. 10 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat
Rooftop solar panels like these could instead be elevated and placed on canopies, creating valuable outdoor decktop space under Bill 46. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

It is sailing through to passage, with a final vote by the council expected within a few weeks. The Honolulu City Council’s zoning and planning committee heard the bill a final time Thursday and it passed quickly, unanimously and without comment.

The measure, requested by City Council Chair Tommy Waters, is part of an ongoing effort to adjust land-use ordinances to encourage the growth of green energy.

Last year, the council unanimously adopted Resolution 21-136, which declared the city’s intention to revise its zoning rules to find ways to add renewable energy elements to older buildings, many of which were restricted by height limitations that didn’t allow them enough space to install energy-saving equipment and solar panels.

“I am a strong supporter of renewable energy and when my office received multiple inquiries from stakeholders who faced challenges trying to install solar panels, I knew we needed to do something,” Waters said in a statement. “Residents were being prevented from having solar on their rooftops due to the limited height restriction combined with the mechanical elements generally placed on building rooftops.”

Honolulu City Council chair person Tommy Waters listens to testimony during floor session at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters is a solid supporter of allowing increased height to accommodate more rooftop solar. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

He said he proposed Bill 46 to spur further talk on the topic and that he is pleased to see it is moving forward.

The bill’s support is coming from the solar industry and real estate firms. But many people may not be aware of it as nobody outside the affected industries has testified about it to the council.

A city report that analyzed the plan acknowledged that the height extensions had the “potential for negative visual impacts,” but came down in support of the plan given the “pressing need” for more solar panels in urban areas.

Supporters say the measure would have a two-fold effect, first by encouraging more installation of rooftop solar panels and, second, by permitting innovative new uses of space that is often little more than a flat expanse of concrete and asphalt.

Rocky Mould, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, said that the new rules would allow building owners to install solar panels on metal canopies that he said are “designed for livable space under them.”

“It allows a height exemption on buildings to build a solar canopy,” Mould said. “It’s a clear public benefit.”

Mould had sought an 18-foot height addition but council members chose to make it 12.

“There is pushback against extending the height of buildings,” he said, saying that there had been “some critiques.”

Colin Yost, chief operating officer of RevoluSun, a solar contractor, said some owners of older, shorter high-rise buildings who wanted solar installations were denied permission to build them by city planners, while many newer buildings have been given variances that allowed them to build taller structures.

“It’s actually essential for some buildings; it’s necessary if we are really going to increase access to solar and democratize it,” Yost said.

The measure doesn’t define how the rooftop space would be used. Mould said that some communities are using the deck under rooftop solar panels as urban gardens. Yost said he could envision residents using it to grow plants that could produce food.

The bill calls for 42-inch safety railings around the edge of the roof and requires that the space not be enclosed and that outdoor lighting be shielded to avoid shining light off the deck and onto nearby buildings.

The legislation is another reflection of how the state’s energy future is changing.

In 2015, the Hawaii Legislature mandated the state would eliminate fossil fuels by 2045 and turn to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. At the end of August, the state shuttered its last remaining coal-fired power plant, which supplied 10% of Oahu’s electricity, adding to the pressure to find new ways to get clean energy.

Renewed and more generous tax incentives that are coming into effect through the federal Inflation Reduction Act are likely to make renewable energy projects more attractive.

“Our plans call for 50,000 new solar installations by 2030, so creative ideas that would make more rooftops and horizontal spaces usable are welcome,” said Jim Kelly, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, in a statement.

The Hawaii chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks likes the bill because it would allow more space to hold mechanical enclosures and maintenance equipment and for other uses.

Prominent real estate developer Ian MacNaughton, whose family brought Costco, Jamba Juice and Starbucks to Oahu, also supports the proposal and thinks the idea will catch hold in urban areas.

“Often underutilized, rooftop spaces present untapped potential for buildings and their occupants,” MacNaughton told the council. “Specifying that the area underneath will not be counted as floor area is a beneficial aspect of this measure.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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