April 15th, 2015


Founder, Trash on Your Back

Zero Waste Coordinator, SF Department of the Environment

Author, Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet

Sustainability Outreach Manager, Stanford

Principal, David Baker Architects

Owner, Net Zero Home


Conservation begins at home – literally.  And the ultimate in energy conservation, of course, is a home that produces as much energy as it uses. Net Zero homes are designed from the ground up to do just that, from insulation material (New Zealand sheep’s wool is optional!) to light fixtures to rooftop solar panels.  But is there a tradeoff to energy efficient home ownership?

For Sven Thesen, Net Zero living doesn’t mean giving up the comforts of home. He recalled his family’s decision to make their dream house a Net Zero house: “My wife’s requirement was it had to be beautiful,” he told the audience at a recent Commonwealth Club gathering, “and so it was beautiful.  And then, it has to be functional and comfortable.  And let’s see how energy-efficient we can make it.”

Powered by a 5.9 kilowatt photovoltaic system, the Thesen’s house uses roughly a quarter of the energy of the average Palo Alto home – as well as powering a curbside EV charger, available free of charge to anyone who wants to pull up and plug in.

Indoor temperature control is not an issue.  “I don’t have an air-conditioning system,” Thesen says proudly. “All I have is good building orientation, a heck of a lot of insulation and some shading on the sunny side.  That’s it.”

Daniel Simons of David Baker Architects has designed many a Net Zero home. He says the reality is simpler – and less costly -- than many people believe. “I think the key with getting to Net Zero, or just being efficient, is trying to figure out how to reduce the loads,” he says.  “The goal is really to make the buildings use as little energy as possible.”  

Of course, not everyone can afford to build an entirely new house, or remodel an existing home.  But as Simons points out, reducing your energy load is still within reach.  Switching to LED light bulbs, upgrading appliances and replacing windows are just some of the steps homeowners can take to reduce their carbon footprint – and their energy bill.

These hum-drum modifications may not have as much curbside cachet as displaying an array of solar panels on your roof. Who gets excited about caulking and insulation? “Some of the most effective things we can do are the least sexy,” admits Ann Edminster, author of Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet. “But it has tremendous paybacks in comfort, energy reduction and so forth.  So there are a lot of good reasons to do it.”

So, Net Zero Energy homes may be in our future. But what about Net Zero waste?  The average Californian produces more than four pounds of trash per day, and San Francisco, among other cities, has set a goal to reduce that to zero.  Is it an impossible goal? And where do we start?

According to Climate One’s next panel of guests, outreach and awareness are the first step – and the more creative, the better.

Four years ago, radio host Diana Dehm started Trash on Your Back, which challenges participants to carry their entire trash output with them for five days. The movement quickly picked up steam, going from 17 participants the first year to over 2,500 in six countries the next. “We’re really trying to help everyone understand that we can create a zero waste world,” Dehm says.  “You mentioned the 4.4 pounds of trash average per person, per day.  Well, we were able to knock to that down to 0.8 pounds per day, just by doing this.

“The U.S. spends $12 billion a year in waste management, right?” Dehm continues. “We take 50% in one week...and it’s a $6 billion opportunity for the nation.  Wouldn’t we rather put that in schools, in compost facilities?”

Lauren Hennessy of Stanford’s Sustainability Office found a novel way to boost campus participation in the nationwide “RecycleMania” college competition. Stanford’s catchy “All About No Waste” video, a parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” has garnered nearly five thousand YouTube hits to date. “That’s 100 times greater than any of the other videos in the competition,” Hennessy reports proudly.  And while Stanford didn’t best arch-rival Harvard in the contest, she adds, “we far exceeded our waste minimization in the competition than in years past.  And we doubled our participation in the competition than last year.  So it really went far in spreading awareness.”

Kevin Drew, of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, is in charge of meeting the city’s zero-waste goal. He admits that it might seem like an impossible dream.  “But you can’t get halfway there, you gotta just go for zero,” he says. “And if we get to 99, that’s doing really well.”

Recycling and composting the city’s trash is one important piece of the puzzle. But to truly get to zero, everyone needs to find ways to reduce what goes in the bins.

“It’s going to take a million little ways to get there,” Drew continues. “Zero waste is really a beautiful kind of a biological construct that we still have to invent.  Everybody’s asking us, how are you going to get there, do you have a precise plan? No, we’re making up as we go along, frankly.  And for God’s sake, let’s get out there and do it.”   

The takeaway? Being mindful of what we use, and how we re-use it, will go a long way toward reducing the trash on our backs -- and in our backyards.


Related Links:

Net Zero Homes

Project Green Home

The Well Building Standard  

California’s Zero Net Energy Policies and Initiatives  

Trash On Your Back Challenge

All About No Waste

SFEnvironment Zero Waste FAQ


- Anny Celsi
April 15, 2015
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California