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Strife-torn community faces German Tesla plant delay

Hardy Graupner
May 3, 2021

Since Tesla announced the building of a Gigafactory near Berlin, construction has been accompanied by support and protests. Tesla's recent decision to make the plant even bigger has widened the rift among locals.

Future look of Gigafactory near Berlin
Tesla's Gigafactory, expected to look like this once construction is done, will produce half a million electric cars per yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Tesla

It isn't hard to find unconditional fans of Elon Musk and his iconic Tesla company in the German state of Brandenburg, where the firm is building its first European Gigafactory.

You can certainly meet them almost every day on the outskirts of a community called Grünheide where the huge plant is taking shape. Through one of the vast building site's entrance gates, people armed with single-lens reflex cameras or just smartphones are eager to catch a glimpse of the building work in progress.

"The sheer speed of the various buildings going up here is unbelievable," a young man told DW. "Why is progress on German building sites so much slower," he asked while pointing to one of the shell constructions on the site.

"When I was here two weeks ago, there was nothing, and now it's almost finished." He shook his head in both admiration and disbelief.

"I don't know exactly what all of this is for, but the whole thing seems so well-organized by Tesla," added the man's female companion. "This will really be something big for us here in Brandenburg, after having seen so many other projects eventually going down the drain."

Expansion plans before it even opens

Tesla's Gigafactory will indeed be big by definition, but the facility near Berlin will be even larger than originally planned. An amended building application by Tesla now includes the addition of the world's largest battery cell production plant — alongside the electric-car factory.

Pamela Eichmann heads the Grünheide/Mark regional branch of the center-left Social Democratic Party, which has been supporting the Tesla project from the get-go.

"Who knew about us before? Almost no one," she told DW. "The whole region can look forward to new opportunities of development now thanks to the Tesla project which has really put Grünheide on the map globally."

According to Tesla, the Gigafactory alone is meant to employ some 12,000 people when operating at full capacity. Production was originally slated to start in July this year. But a delay of several months is likely as the amended building plan application needs to be scrutinized by regional authorities — and the public.

Building machinery on the premises of the Grünheide Gigafactory
Germans have been stunned by the speed of construction work at the site of the Grünheide GigafactoryImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

"Fair enough. The original date for the start of production was probably a bit overambitious anyway," said Eichmann, adding that she viewed the project as a blessing for the region.

"Let's not forget that young people used to leave in droves as they saw no future here, no jobs," she said. "That will change now as Tesla will also lure many other firms and suppliers to our region."

The likely delay will be a thorn in the side of CEO Elon Musk. In early April, he complained that 16 months after his initial application, there was still no scheduled date for a final approval of the Gigafactory, forcing Tesla to forge ahead at its own risk on the basis of preliminary permissions. Fears by some that Musk might be fed up with German red tape and build his European Gigafactory somewhere else have not been confirmed so far, and according to Eichmann "will hopefully never materialize."

"I do believe that the decision-makers will be as cooperative as possible so as not to jeopardize the project," she said. "And I don't think Elon Musk will pack up and leave, he's gotten in too deep."

Strong resistance to Tesla

But the very speed of construction work at the Tesla site without a final project approval, and the fact that the plant is partly located in a drinking water reservoir, has seen local opponents up in arms.

Among them is Manuela Hoyer who heads the Grünheide Citizens' Initiative, which was called into being in protest of the planned Gigafactory.

"Whether there's a delay now or not, I'm not happy with the whole procedure in general," Hoyer told DW. "I believe that a plant of this dimension should never have been allowed to get off the ground in a water protection area."

Her campaigners and a lot of other locals are worried about the vast amount of water the Tesla plant will consume every day. Groundwater levels have already been receding fast in the region following three consecutive hot and dry summers.

Hoyer said she'd seen a TV report about Tesla laying water pipes illegally, hardening her conviction that government project supervisors are turning a blind eye to irregularities.

"There are only random inspections on the site by the regional environmental authorities, but obviously those checks are not really efficient," Hoyer complained.

Does she believe that opponents or policymakers could eventually thwart the project?

"In theory, it's always possible to stop this project, but policymakers most likely won't do that as so much has already been invested," she said.

Anti-Tesla protesters near Grünheide, Germany
In the picture, Manuela Hoyer holds up a sign reading 'No industry in a drinking water reservoir' during a May 1 rallyImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

Weighing the pros and cons

It's not that the local supporters of the Gigafactory don't see the potential downsides of the plant and its expected impact on the environment. But they emphasize what they see as the far bigger benefits for the environment coming from Tesla's e-mobility drive to get away from classic combustion engine vehicles.

As Tesla itself argued in a legal brief in April, "the most glaring problem is that in current procedures and laws, projects that fight climate change and those that accelerate it are treated equally."

Musk first announced his plan to build a Gigafactory in Berlin in November 2019. He said last month that Tesla's aim to kick off production in Grünheide only 20 months after deciding where to build the plant "is not ambitious, it's simply necessary."

"We have to stop climate change urgently, and e-mobility can contribute to it despite its current imperfections," agreed Eichmann from the Social Democrats. "We just don't have the time to debate things forever."

Can Tesla really tempt German workers?