There are Energy Star-labeled appliances. There are Energy Star-labeled homes. There are even “Energy Star Partner” builders. But Energy Star towns? It’s starting to happen. Last month, Islip, N.Y., became the latest Long Island township to mandate Energy Star compliance for every new house in town, effective February 2009. Eight of 13 Long Island towns now mandate Energy Star for new houses.

The news follows on the heels of Montgomery County, Md.’s April decision to require Energy Star performance in all its new houses starting in 2010. Montgomery County and Islip are now the latest to join a small but growing list of municipalities nationwide that mandate Energy Star as a local requirement.

For the record, says Energy Star for Homes program director Sam Rashkin, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t support the idea of making Energy Star performance standards into a code. “The brand message to consumers has been to look to Energy Star for above-code performance,” Rashkin emailed BUILDER. “Instead of making ‘Energy Star for Homes’ code, we encourage local governments to consider incentives such as expedited approvals, reduced or delayed permit fees, reduced utility hook-up fees, expedited field inspections, and facilitation of financial incentives with local lending institutions.”

But the Long Island town policy change does have enthusiastic support from the regional utility, the Long Island Power Authority. The power utility is looking to energy conservation and efficiency upgrades as a way to avoid costly investment in increased power generation capacity (or the need to buy emergency power from off the island). It also sees the policy (and subsequent energy conservation) as a way to improve the reliability of Long Island’s over-stressed power delivery infrastructure.

To help towns on Long Island implement the change, the island’s power authority is providing grants to any town that moves to adopt Energy Star. Localities can then use that money to pay for training qualified energy raters and building inspectors as well as educating builders and trade contractors.

And surprisingly for an industry that traditionally opposes new mandates, the new Long Island town rules also draw support from Long Island’s home builder association, the Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI). According to a letter written by group President Bob Wiebolt to the EPA, residential Energy Star construction standards offer “proven paybacks” to consumers. Long Island builders will benefit as well, because “code requirements create a market volume large enough to achieve economy of scale, i.e., lower per unit cost for high SEER equipment,” Wiebolt wrote. One mandatory program also promises a simpler process for builders. A “significant coalition [is] pushing for it,” he added, “and we are trying to promote uniform standards to avoid 70 separate versions.”

What about the cost to builders? Opponents of the Montgomery County initiative argued that it might cost $10,000 or $20,000 to upgrade an average house to earn the Energy Star label (although to keep that figure in perspective, a median new home in Montgomery County currently goes for $1.5 million). County officials, however, pegged the figure much lower, at just $2,000.

For Long Island, home energy expert Richard Faesy of Vermont Energy Investment Corp., quotes an estimate of $4,000 for the up-charge for compliance, including testing costs and raters’ standard fees. But even if the higher estimates prove more accurate, policy makers say they’re not backing down. As Montgomery County, Md., council member George Leventhal told the Washington Post, “the costs of climate change are going to be far, far more costly.”

[BIO] Ted Cushman is a contributing editor to BUILDER magazine.