Gigafactory construction has been accompanied by both support and protests since Tesla announced it was building one near Berlin. Local opposition has grown as a result of Tesla’s recent decision to make the plant even bigger.
A bombshell of a surprise announcement hit Germany’s auto industry when Tesla announced its fourth gigafactory would be near Berlin. Tesla’s flamboyant CEO discussed the news casually on a stage in Berlin in late 2019 following the awarding of the company’s “Golden Steering Wheel” to the Tesla Model 3. There’s something that I want to announce, and I believe it will be well received. Tesla’s Gigafactory will be located in Berlin,” Musk announced to a gasping audience, which included top managers from Germany’s carmakers. In front of the crowd, Musk said, “I come a lot to Berlin.”. Berlin is awesome!
Since then, excitement has not abated. Berlin’s radioeins station has used a jingle to let listeners know about the project, known as a “declaration of war” against the country’s car industry. Daimler (with its Mercedes-Benz brand) and Volkswagen (which includes Porsche and Audi) have fallen out of public favor following its emissions manipulation in the dieselgate controversy and because of its uncertain switch to electric mobility. Tesla’s plans for a connection to the electric grid will be a “huge win for the mobility transition” in a country where climate change ranks high on voters’ concerns in the wake of unprecedented heat waves, droughts, and the Fridays for Future protest movement.
The factory’s economic impact is also a great hope for many people. It is located in the economically unsound state of Brandenburg, which borders Berlin. As a result of Germany’s coal exit, many jobs are at risk – the mining industry remains among the state’s largest employers. Tesla’s location is one of the main priorities of the local government, along with issues such as digitalization and education. Musk has also fueled the media frenzy with his publicity stunts on Twitter, including suggesting that the plant should have a “marvelous rave cave,” a swimming pool on the top of the building, and graffiti art on the walls.
Local protests against the Tesla factory have been widely covered in the media, as well as those welcoming Tesla with open arms. The powerful metalworkers union in Germany, which has over two million members, is also expected to clash with Tesla over its past record of restraining unionization.
Is this the largest battery factory in the world?
Aside from the press shop, foundry, body shop, paint shop, and powertrain manufacturing, seats are also manufactured at Tesla’s Berlin plant. A Tesla battery cell manufacturing plant on site would be the largest in the world. Musk says that the company could possibly produce 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) per year, and possibly increase that to 200 or 250 GWh. If 100 GWh of batteries were produced annually, 1.3 million model Y cars with a 75 KWh battery could be powered.
The Berlin plant will manufacture Tesla’s new “4680 cells,” which measure 80 by 46 mm (hence the name) and offer a higher efficiency. A state aid package for the battery project was announced by the EU in January. According to Jörg Steinbach, who helped bring Tesla to Brandenburg, battery production will get underway in roughly two years.
About the site
Tesla purchased a plot of about 3 km2 land in Grünheide, south of Berlin, where there had been a long-standing industry project for about 20 years. Several years ago, BMW considered building a factory at this site, but ultimately made a decision to build in Leipzig.
“Nature surroundings” close to Berlin are used as a recruiting tool by Tesla in order to attract employees.
A variety of bike lanes, roads, and highways, along with direct train connections, will enable Tesla’s cars to be conveniently accessible. There will be an exit dedicated to the site, which is very close to an autobahn. According to the state government of Brandenburg, a plant rail station is also being constructed to maximize rail traffic in freight logistics. A nearby logistics centre may also be used by Tesla as extra space. A design and engineering center will be established in Berlin. There are 35 kilometres between the new airport and Berlin.
Tesla has not yet received a final permit, despite the factory project being well underway. Even though there are outstanding questions about the factory’s environmental impact, German law permits construction based on provisional licenses, with the caveat that the carmaker must demolish the building and reforest the area if the licenses will ultimately be denied.
German legislation at the federal level aims to limit environmental damage (Bundesimissionsschutzgesetz – BlmSchG). This acts as a key guidance for the approval process. There are three conditions for early construction beginning: 1) the project can be expected to succeed; 2) there is a public interest in having the project done early; and 3) the applicant agrees to compensate for all damage caused by the building of the facility up to and including the time it was approved.” According to the law, Tesla paid a deposit of 100 millions euros in January in order to ensure that construction can be undertaken before the site could be restored.
According to Bloomberg in February, Brandenburg’s economy minister Steinbach maintained “totally relaxed” attitudes towards the approval. It is “very, very unlikely” that Tesla will not receive the final approval, he said in another interview.
Government support and red tape
While waiting for final approval in April 2021, Tesla criticised the slow approval processes for German industry and infrastructure projects as impeding its climate action efforts. In a statement released as part of a legal case before the regional higher administrative court, Tesla Brandenburg explained how the German approval law stalls the necessary industrial transformation.
German standards are incredibly fast when it comes to approving decisions from the authorities. It might take several years for a wind turbine to be approved in the United States. A striking contrast exists between Tesla’s rapid development and the new airport in Berlin, which opened nearly a decade late.
Tesla’s readiness to take large financial risks contributed to the speed of the project. The necessary authorities have also taken great steps to ensure that the vision is realized as quickly as possible. In response to Tesla’s announcement that this location was right for the project, the state government launched a targeted task force to coordinate and expedite the approval process without interfering with it. All affected ministries as well as Tesla representatives are represented on the task force.
As chancellor Angela Merkel told Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland in late 2020, “I am pleased that Brandenburg demonstrates with Tesla how our laws and funding opportunities are also used in a short time to accomplish so much.”.
Altmaier promised Musk that Tesla’s plant would be ready as soon as possible with federal assistance. The Altmaier company wishes Musk good luck with his car plant in Brandenburg. “We will assist you in every way we can.”
Concerns about the environment
There is a lot of opposition centered on the plant’s water usage, the clearing of a local forest, and increased traffic.
Large portions of the planned factory are located within an environmental protection zone. It has taken steps to decrease how much water Tesla originally intended to use, including switching its heating system from gas to heat pumps, modifying its cooling system, and other improvements, the government says.
There was a monoculture pine forest planted for the production of cardboard in the parts of the forest that needed to be cleared to make room for the factory. There will be reforestations in the surrounding region to compensate for the clearing of the forest by Tesla. Telsa relocated bats, reptiles, and ant nests to minimise the impact on local fauna. Also, 368 bat boxes and 329 bird boxes were installed by the company.
In order to reduce emissions and ease congestion, the government says, rail connections will be the backbone of freight transportation and employee commutes. A bicycle-friendly connection to public transport is also being considered by authorities.
As much as possible, the plant will generate its energy needs using locally generated renewable energy. Brandenburg is a large producer of wind and solar energy. The government, in a statement, said that natural gas would only be used in paint shops and foundries. It said that electrification would not be efficient in these places. Also included in the energy concept is a photovoltaic system on the factory roof.
In negotiations with Tesla, Dietmar Woidke said the Brandenburg region’s high renewable power production – the highest in Germany per person – was an important factor.
Resistance on the local level
There is broad support for the project in the region. According to a survey in February 2020, 82 percent of Brandenburg residents favor the construction of the factory. Grünheide, which has a population of only 9,000 people currently, is also set to be transformed by the factory. In the media, local residents are widely discussed as opposing the project.
While licenses are pending, many critics are disappointed that work has already begun. On the other hand, critics complained that, at the September public hearing, the state’s environmental agency had already announced there would be “no general obstacles to the licensing procedure,” even though more than 400 objections were still pending. The government has stated that such a large project is likely to draw objections.
Grünheide resident Frank Gersdorf, a member of a citizen initiative and a Grünheide resident who discovered Tesla’s plans in November 2019, told Berlin magazine ExBerliner that he immediately decided to take action. According to him, “It was obvious that the natural environment and livelihood of the people would be destroyed.” He also said to the start-up magazine: “A whole area has been turned into a gigantic industrial region, and that isn’t an exaggeration.”
Several environmental groups and the German Green Party have voiced support for the project, distancing themselves from local activists. “Conservationists care about intact nature, not about industrial forests,” said Kai Niebert, president of a German environmental organization.
The frequency of train service stops, as well as the improvement of park services, is long overdue, says local resident Christine de Bailly.
Due to investors planning to build new houses for Tesla employees, the property prices in the area have already risen. New construction is not permitted in some nearby areas.
The local proponents of the Gigafactory aren’t blind to the Gigafactory’s potential downsides and environmental impact. They underscore, however, Tesla’s move away from combustion-engine vehicles to embrace e-mobility is far more beneficial to the environment.
Tesla itself argued in an April legal brief, “the main flaw is that both climate change projects and those that accelerate climate change are equally treated under current laws and procedures.”
Musk’s Gigafactory plans were first announced in November 2019. Several Tesla executives said last month that the company’s goal of starting production in Grünheide only 20 months after choosing the location “was not ambitious, it was simply necessary.”
Despite its current imperfections, e-mobility is a contributing factor to stopping climate change, agreed Eichmann from the Social Democrats. Defending the matter forever simply isn’t feasible.”