The green learning curve: Tesla, the New York Times and commercial real estate

The Tesla-New York Times kerfuffle has been interesting to watch.

A brief recap — Tesla Motors pitched the NYT to do a road trip in its Model S all electric sedan from Washington, D.C. to Boston, using the company’s newly installed fast-charging stations at two locations on the highway between the two cities. NY Times reporter John M. Broder essayed the trip during extremely cold weather and at one point, lost all power on the car, which had to be towed. Much ink has since been spilled on both sides, with the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan admitting Broder may have showed poor judgment but had not deliberately staged the breakdown.

But in a blog on the Natural Resources Defense Council website, attorney Max Baumhefner brings up a key point — that driving an electric vehicle involves a learning curve.

“There’s an important difference between taking a car on a test drive and taking one home,” Baumhefner writes.

“Researchers from UC Davis found that drivers who leased an all-electric version of the Mini Cooper for a year quickly progressed through a discovery phase, in which they became accustomed to the car’s range, rapid acceleration, sporty handling, and regenerative braking that allows for ‘one-pedal’ driving. After living with the cars, every participant in the study reported that electric vehicles are suitable for daily use.”

Tesla is now pushing the daily driving envelope for EVs with its highway superchargers, and this also involves a learning curve, a transition in how people plan and think about road trips.

This seems simple and straightforward enough but there is always a cultural lag, where people expect a new technology to work exactly like the older version it’s replacing. We expect an electric car to work exactly like one that runs on gasoline — an expectation that’s a bit easier to meet in hybrids. We expect power from wind or solar sources to work exactly like power from fossil fuels.

The renewable energy learning curve is obviously a very long one, requiring significant changes in how we think about power generation and transmission, but the transition is underway, as evidenced by a press release that popped into my email box on Tuesday.

CoreNet Global, a major professional group for the commercial real estate developers, sent out a press release with a policy statement advocating that its 7,900 members worldwide prioritize designing zero-net buildings.

“We support the principle that smart and responsible energy policies and practices reduce corporate carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions, (and) we encourage our members’ companies to drive energy efficiency to optimal levels with net-zero buildings as a top measure of long-term success.”

Net-zero buildings are defined simply as commercial buildings that produce as much electricity as they use.

Noting that industrial and commercial buildings account for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the statement emphasizes the “tangible benefits for companies and management teams which prioritize energy efficiency and take steps to reduce the carbon footprint. They will realize meaningful return on investment financially, socially and environmentally.”

Think about a built environment — factories, warehouses, stores, malls, where net-zero construction is not the exception but the norm – and how that would affect our everyday thinking about energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A lot of people in California could soon be climbing that learning curve. Our building codes are targeting net-zero standards for residential construction by 2020 and for the commercial sector by 2030.