Thursday, September 14, 2006

Where Energy Efficiency Is the Law

NY Times
September 10, 2006


REFRIGERATORS, washing machines and other appliances bearing yellow “Energy Star” tags won’t be the only energy-efficient big-ticket items for sale on Long Island in coming months.

Beginning next spring, new homes in at least two towns in Suffolk County must be built to the home-construction standard that is equivalent to that yellow tag, which certifies that an appliance performs within energy conservation levels defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Brookhaven and Babylon passed laws in August and July, respectively, requiring that all new homes be built to the Energy Star homebuilding standard.

The federal housing standard aims to limit the amount of energy a house will use once it is occupied. This standard has been further tailored for Nassau and Suffolk climate variations by the Long Island Power Authority.

The new laws put both Brookhaven and Babylon in the vanguard of towns in New York State that have passed measures requiring a level of “green” home building. They are the first on Long Island to do so, but several other towns are considering identical or similar measures.

“We’re encouraging every town to adopt this measure,” said Neal Lewis, executive director of the Neighborhood Network, a Farmingdale-based nonprofit energy conservation organization that is credited with publicizing the home building standard and encouraging towns to change building codes to require it.

Energy Star homes will save homeowners money on energy costs by requiring, for example, certain types of insulation and installation techniques, and the use of energy-efficient appliances.

“The No. 1 thing is the envelope of the house: the insulation and the windows,” said Andrew Manitt, research director for the Neighborhood Network. A certificate of occupancy will be issued only after inspectors trained in new tests required by the standard have verified that the homes pass muster.

In comparison with a home built under current codes, an Energy Star home priced near the median on Long Island, about $500,000, would save owners about $21,600 in energy costs over the term of a 30-year mortgage, the Network estimates.

The houses cost slightly more — $2,000 to about $5,000, builders say — but environmentalists say the upfront cost of building an energy-efficient home pays off in the long run. “A house can last 30, 40, 50 years or longer and if they’re built as energy hogs, it’s very difficult to fix that later on,” said Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, a nonprofit sustainable energy group in Bridgehampton. “Doing it right the first time around,” he added, “is the way to go.”

The power authority, in charge of setting the local standard, is also giving each town or any other municipality that passes a similar law a $25,000 grant to help train inspectors to test new homes.

The Long Island Builders Institute initially objected to the new laws because of concerns that differing building codes from town to town would confuse builders and the small number of inspectors currently trained in the new standard. Waiting months for inspections after a house is completed would cost builders money, the institute said.

“We’ve got maybe six guys on the Island” who can inspect the homes, said Robert Wieboldt, executive vice president of the institute. “That was fine when you had 40 or 50 houses a year being built under Energy Star.”

The new law would create more than 2,000 Energy Star homes in one year in Brookhaven and Babylon alone, he said.

The towns are putting the new laws into effect in three phases to allow time for new inspectors to be trained. The full standard will be required, along with complete inspections, in the spring of 2008.

Like some other areas in the New York metropolitan region, Long Island has struggled with the threat of blackouts in recent years.

In Brookhaven, the conservation measure came during the same week that the Town Council also approved plans by Manhattan-based Caithness Energy to build a new natural gas power plant within the town’s borders. The plant would generate about 350 megawatts, an amount equal to about 10 percent of Long Island’s annual demand.

The conservation measure and the plant approval complement each other, according to the Brookhaven town supervisor, Brian Foley.

In spite of reports that people are leaving Long Island in large numbers because many cannot afford the high cost of housing and high property taxes, Mr. Foley said that his town has had an influx of residents. “To meet the realities of our region, we need comprehensive conservation, including Energy Star, and at the same time there’s a need for new power production,” he said.

Mr. Foley held a news conference with other officials in front of the Country Manor development under construction in Shoreham by Emmy Custom Homes. The development has 132 four- and five-bedroom homes of 3,500 to 4,000 square feet, all built with even more energy-saving features than the new town laws will require, according to Edward Flax, president of the construction firm.

The state government and utility companies pay rebates to builders; LIPA, for instance, gives up to $1,500 for meeting the Energy Star standard, Mr. Flax said.

The homes cost buyers about $5,000 more than conventional homes, he said. That extra cost comes largely from additional labor to tighten the seal of the house and to install insulation and ventilation equipment and in payments for Energy Star appliances, he said.

The percentage of homes on Long Island now built to the Energy Star standard is less than 1 percent, Mr. Lewis of the Neighborhood Network, said. “People can save thousands of dollars,” he said, “and virtually none of these houses are getting built.”

But he is working with other towns, including Huntington, Oyster Bay, Riverhead, Hempstead and Islip, which are considering identical measures. Keeping the laws identical from town to town is important, Mr. Lewis said, to create a standard that builders can easily meet.

But the municipalities on Long Island often have their own minds about local codes. The town of Southampton voted in an altered version of the law, Mr. Lewis said, despite his urging to adopt the same measure as Brookhaven and Babylon.

In Southampton, only moderately priced homes would have to meet the Energy Star standard. The big McMansions are “being given a pass and the law will only be applied to affordable homes, which is a small number,” Mr. Lewis said.

People often believe that a neighbor’s energy use is his own business, Mr. Lewis said, but “we all share the environmental consequences.”

It’s the big houses that are the biggest energy hogs, with their central air-conditioning systems and multiple heat zones, Mr. Lewis said. “We already have energy codes,” he said. “Our effort here is to simply make the energy code stricter.”

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