Scott Davis’ hammer swung swiftly as the sun made its midday pass Friday over a sprawling parking lot in downtown Los Angeles.
    Davis, one of a number of Southern California Institute of Architecture students who’ve teamed with their Caltech peers for the Solar Decathlon, an international challenge to build remarkably sustainable, attractive and affordable homes, was laying the foundation for the team’s entry, CHIP, short for Compact House Increasing Possibility.
In about six months, CHIP will be powered entirely by the passing sun, capturing rays with solar panels and maximizing energy efficiency with a space-age design and technology. The two-story home will also use an Internet-connected computer to adapt the heating and cooling systems to weather forecasts.
But Davis could be laying the foundation for something much bigger: the mainstreaming of sustainability. And that’s a big part of the US Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon, which seeks to produce a fully functional sustainable home consumers can purchase for about $300,000. “We have to deliver all the things people expect from a small house,” said Davis.
As a community, Pasadena faces a similar challenge. Through the Green City Action Plan, city leaders have set ambitious goals to make sustainability an everyday part of life in Pasadena. And even as the economy sputtered back to life, efforts to make the Crown City’s energy, water supply and waste stream more sustainable surged ahead. In 2010, the city and its residents added more than 100 new solar installations, recycled 32,000 pounds of cardboard and 1.7 million pounds of construction materials, all while planning to make the streets a little more bike friendly, according to the 2010 Green City Report.
But to make headway on goals to reduce waste to zero by 2040, add almost 10 times the solar generation capacity and reduce the ever-present thirst for water, Pasadena city leaders and the community have their work cut out for them. The past year has been especially helpful toward meeting that end, according to Felicia Williams, chair of the city’s Environmental Advisory Committee, which assists the City Council on sustainable policy. 
“I think Pasadena is pretty far along. A couple of cities have made a name for themselves in sustainability,” she said, noting Santa Monica has made a reputation with its green initiatives. “But I think Pasadena is right up there in that category as well.”
Bolstering Pasadena’s reputation as an environmentally forward-thinking city are the green building code, which as of Jan. 1 mandates that new construction and additions incorporate sustainable practices and features, and the flexibility the city-owned Pasadena Water & Power Department affords officials in overseeing greenhouse gas emissions and guiding water and power usage, Williams said. 
The path toward achieving zero waste by 2040 could begin with a ban on plastic shopping bags, which the Environmental Advisory Commission will begin discussing on April 28. Williams said the commission is seeking input from the public on how to craft a ban, which will be based on Los Angeles County’s recently completed environmental impact report on plastic shopping bags, with specific findings on what effect bags have on Pasadena.
A bag ban is set to take effect at some markets in Altadena and other unincorporated areas in July. By 2012, bags will be banned in all stores. Customers will have to use reusable bags or pay a 10-cent fee for a paper bag. County officials estimate households use 1,600 bags a year and expected that figure to fall by half by 2013 and shave $4 million from cleanup costs.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes Altadena, voted against the ban. Malibu and Long Beach have also enacted bag bans. 
Other stepping stones on Pasadena’s route to zero waste may also include curbside composting, Williams said.
Pasadena officials are also in the process of updating general plan elements that act as blueprints to guide decisions on mobility, land use and conservation. Williams said that presents an opportunity to make green policy part of the city’s foundation, creating a nexus between the Bicycle Master Plan, the Gold Line and other efforts to make streets equally walkable, drivable and bikeable. “This is the first time we will be able to coordinate sustainability in the general plan,” she said.
To comply with state legislation, city officials more than a year ago began studying how much greenhouse gas Pasadena emits and how it can be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. The first draft, which found Pasadena spewed 8 million metric tons of globe-warming carbon dioxide in 2007, putting per-capita emissions 10 times higher than comparable cities and twice the national average, is being revised to better account for the emissions the Rose Bowl helps create when it draws crowds and their cars, Williams said.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s March 30 proclamation that California had exited a prolonged drought due to snowpack 165 percent above average in the Sierra Nevada — where snowmelt feeds the rivers that feed the California Aqueduct that quenches the Southland’s thirst — might seem like a godsend to those tired of watching their water use. But California isn’t out of the desert yet, according to Bill Patzert, a JPL oceanographer and climatologist. 
“You know what the California state motto is? ‘We’re in a drought, more or less,’” Patzert quipped.
That snowpack is the result of an unexpected deluge in Northern California, and given recent weather patterns — six of the past 10 years have experienced less than average rainfall — Patzert called Brown’s proclamation “a little bit of irrational exuberance” and said conservation remains key, especially since demand for water remains as high as ever for both urban and agricultural growth. “We got a nice temporary reprieve here, but we always have to think ahead,” Patzert said.
Pasadena has been up to the conservation challenge, with PWP customers using 15 percent less water in 2010 than the year prior, according to the Green City Report.
On two recent occasions, Pasadenans proved their mettle in meeting emergency challenges to conserve water.
Just two weeks ago, during a 10-day emergency water shortage in which a major water pipeline to the city was shut down for seismic upgrades, residents managed to use 38 percent less water than the five-year average demand for that period, after city officials warned early on in the shortage period that the pace of conservation was off, risking depletion of the 150 million gallons available to the city at the time. Normal usage in that period is 250 million gallons. Residents and businesses also beat a 10 percent conservation goal in a campaign that ran from September 2007 to February 2008.
Patzert cautions water users to hedge their bets with further conservation.
“Just because we hit the jackpot on the slots this winter, next winter could turn out to be dry again,” 
he said.