If you’re driving along Autobahn 10, just to the southeast of Berlin, you can’t miss it. One minute it’s nothing but Brandenburger forest either side of the road, but then suddenly there’s a clearing, and if you drive a little further, you see a heap of cranes, machinery and vehicles working away. This is not just any old construction site. For starters, it’s big – the size of around 420 football fields, in fact. But that’s not all. This area is the site of Tesla’s under-construction Gigafactory, which, depending on who you ask, represents either one of the biggest opportunities or one of the biggest risks to life in this idyllic pocket of Brandenburg.
It all started in November last year. Elon Musk, the CEO of the US electric car giant, was in Berlin for Das Goldene Lenkrad vehicle awards show. As he walked on stage to accept the award for best mid-sized vehicle of the year – won by Tesla’s Model 3 car – everything seemed to be going perfectly normally: He thanked his staff, the hosts of the evening and said he was thrilled about the win. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he dropped a bombshell.
“I actually have an announcement that will be hopefully well received,” he said. “We’ve decided to put the Tesla Gigafactory Europe in the Berlin area.”
Speculation immediately broke out over where exactly this was going to be. More details came to light in January, when it was announced that Tesla had purchased a 300-hectare site at Grünheide for just over €40 million. This site hugs the Autobahn around 30 km southeast of the Hauptstadt’s centre, and only 5 km from Berlin’s state border with Brandenburg, near the town of Erkner.
If the site seemed large, so too did the ambitions of the company, which seemed determined not to be a repeat of the Berlin Airport nightmare. Tesla officials said they planned to have the first stage of the €4bn project completed by June 2021, by which stage the plant is expected to have the capacity to produce 500,000 Tesla Model Y vehicles per year. Tesla also said that it would have up to 12,000 workers on site, a significant figure given that the municipality of Grünheide only has a population of just under 9000.
The company’s announcement was largely met with praise from political figures. Not only would the factory bolster the development of electric-pow- ered vehicles in Germany, thereby helping to meet climate goals, but the decision to use Brandenburg as a location would provide much-needed investment and economic opportunity to a region that has struggled to attract major projects since the Wende.
Wrong place, right time?
Despite the initial enthusiasm, however, criticism quickly began to emerge. “When I found out in November 2019 what Tesla and the authorities were planning, I immediately decided to fight,” says Grünheide local Frank Gersdorf. “It was clear to me that the nature and the livelihood of the people here would be destroyed.”
The 56-year-old, who was born and raised in the area, lives with his wife about 800 metres from the Gigafactory site. In January, Gersdorf and some other like-minded locals set up the Bürgerinitiative Grünheide, a citizens’ initiative campaigning against the project. The critics have a seemingly never-ending list of concerns, ranging from infrastructure to the construction approval process and overall transparency.
For most of the dissenters, the project’s environmental impact has remained the primary issue. The felling of 90 hectares of pine forest in February, as part of the first stage of the project, raised concerns about the impact on local fauna. Another critical ecological factor is water. Large chunks of the proposed factory sit within a designated Wasserschutzgebiet (water protection zone).
Specifically, the site falls across two different water protection categories – 3a and 3b – with both containing a series of rules preventing certain types of industrial activity from taking place. “The main point of criticism from our side is that the location simply isn’t suitable,” says Steffen Schorcht, who for the past 25 years has lived in Erkner. “We have water protection zones to minimise the risk of contaminating the groundwater,” he explains. “That’s why you’re not allowed to build certain things within them, like a chemicals factory – and Tesla is in its character a chemicals factory.”
Schorcht notes that Tesla’s Gigafactory would have a wide production range, meaning more activities taking place there than at Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg plant, for example. “They have a painting facility there, they have an aluminium foundry,” he says. “They have a lot of processes that involve chemicals, and therefore there’s a risk that pollutants could be released into the groundwater.”
We don’t have anything against Tesla, or the energy or transport transition – quite the opposite actually. For us, the issue is the location.”
The 59-year-old electrical engineer has campaigned on water protection issues in the area for more than 20 years and is intimately familiar with the relevant laws and local history. He says his opposition to the project isn’t based in ideological opposition to industry. “We don’t have anything against Tesla, or the energy or transport transition – quite the opposite actually. For us, the issue is the location.”
The main blame, in Schorcht’s opinion, lies at the hands of the SPD-led state government in Brandenburg – he feels they should never have offered Tesla the site in the first place.
Not everyone in the area agrees with him: supporters of the Giga- factory project point to the fact that the site has been officially listed by the state government as a Gewerbegebiet (commercial zone) for around two decades. In fact, BMW came close to building their own vehicle assembly plant on the site in the early 2000s before eventually deciding on Leipzig. Schorcht, by way of rebuttal, argues that the site should not have been offered to BMW, either, and suggests that the state government’s development plan for the site is likely to be challenged in court.
“From our point of view, that is very legally questionable,” he says. “They’ve tried to open a backdoor to offer Tesla something quickly so that the company builds here in Brandenburg.” Exberliner contacted the press office of Jörg Steinbach, Brandenburg’s minister for economy, work and industry, however he was unavailable for comment.
Tesla’s black box
Critics have also highlighted the construction approval process as a point of concern. Over the past year, the Landesamt für Umwelt – the independent body responsible for issuing environmental permits for construction projects in Brandenburg – has granted Tesla five provisional permits: these have allowed the company to clear the 90 hectares of forest and begin construction without the need for a final environmental approval.
It has been pointed out that this is well within the law, under paragraph 8a of the Bundes-Immissionsschutzgesetzt (Federal Imission Control Act), and that numerous other projects have utilised this paragraph in the past. Yet detractors have raised ethical questions over the practice, fearing it could be used as a precedent for other major projects in the future.
Sebastian Walter is one such opponent. “Yes, it has been used before,” he says, “but this paragraph 8a has been used by small companies or private builders. To give out so many provisional permits for such a large project is legally possible, but I think the question should be: Is what is legally possible also legitimate?”
Walter, 30, is the chairman of Die Linke’s parliamentary group in the Brandenburg state parliament. “I find it difficult,” he adds, “to think that this factory could be finished, but the final environmental assessment and the final building permit could still be awaiting approval.”
One potentially risky (and costly) complication of this process is that if the project’s final environmental permit is denied, then Tesla would be legally responsible for dismantling the entire factory and returning the site to its previous condition – no mean feat for a 90-hectare site which, before construction began, was a pine forest.
“It is very, very difficult to return the site to its original state,” says Schorcht. “That’s another criticism: you can’t simply give out provisional permits if it’s not possible to return the site to its original condition.”
Tesla came to parliament, and I was really happy that they were actually there. But they just showed their PowerPoint presentation and no one was allowed to ask questions.”
Another bone of contention is the matter of transparency, with politicians and locals alike frustrated by the lack of information coming from the California-based company. Walter says that, while Die Linke certainly aren’t against the project, they do have a number of questions regarding the environmental impact, working conditions at the factory and the pressure the development will place on local infrastructure and the local community – but they aren’t getting anything out of Tesla.
“There was a moment when Tesla came to parliament, and I was really happy that they were actually there,” he recounts. “But they just showed their PowerPoint presentation and no one was allowed to ask questions.”
Such an approach is simply inappropriate to German parliament, Walter suggests, as it would be in the United States. “This is one of the largest economic and industrial projects of the past few decades, and you can’t just organise it all from the green table – or from Twitter, as Elon Musk does,” he says. “You have to come here and talk to the people.” Exberliner also approached Tesla for comment, but did not receive a reply to its press request.
It would be misleading to characterise the Gigafactory story as a simple David and Goliath battle, with a money-hungry American company on one side and powerless local residents on the other. For one thing, there haven’t been any official opinion polls or research into the matter, so it has proven particularly difficult to gauge public sentiment in the region. The protests – and subsequent counter-protests in favour of the project – that took place in Grünheide in January and February also didn’t seem to shed much light. Many complained that the majority of those present weren’t from the region at all, with some demonstrators coming from as far and wide as Berlin and Bavaria.
Different stakeholders have varying perceptions of public opinion. Schorcht and Gersdorf are convinced that opposition to the project is growing, based on increased contact they’ve been receiving from concerned locals and the development of other citizens’ initiatives in the area. In advance of public meetings between Tesla and locals in September, it was revealed that 414 groups and citizens had submitted official objections to the project. Gersdorf believes that local opinion has been misrepresented by politicians – in their staunch support of the project – and the German press, by not reporting objectively enough.
“The mood was artificially pushed in a positive direction from the very beginning,” he argues. “Statements like, ‘This is like drawing the six in the lottery’, or that the project was of ‘national and even international importance to Germany’, silenced a lot of critics.”
Others see the situation differently, however. Christine de Bailly runs the local Netz-Werk-Laden in Grünheide, a volunteer-run community centre located in the town’s Marktplatz. Since January, the Netz-Werk- Laden has hosted weekly Tesla information evenings on Tuesdays from 5 to 7pm, where two communications consultants contracted by Tesla are on hand to answer questions and provide updates on the project.
De Bailly says the role of the information evenings isn’t to convince people of the virtues of the project, but simply to inform people of what is going on and let them make up their own minds. De Bailly feels that public sentiment has shifted throughout the year, with occasional outright resistance – many locals were concerned about the impact of clearing the forest at the site – now largely replaced by a sense of cautiousness, even curiosity.
“There are a lot of people who like to drive past and see how it’s coming along, how quickly it’s growing,” she says. “‘What’s happening? How’s it looking? Will we get jobs?’ People are asking these types of things.”
Regardless of where the majority stands, it’s clear that a number of Grünheide residents are supportive of the project. De Bailly, for one, is hopeful the factory will act as a kind of accelerator to help boost infrastructure and connectivity in the area. “It’s long overdue,” she says. “We’ve been working for a long time, trying to get the train to stop here more often and improve the bus services.”
Another local at ease with the project is Lukas Haiß. The 27-year-old says that, while he’s not particularly enthusiastic about the Gigafactory, he is comfort- able with the development going ahead.
“The site has been classified as a commercial zone for a long time, and I think it’d be good if we could use it for that purpose,” he argues. “As for the fact that it’s Tesla, that doesn’t really interest me personally, but I like the sustainability aspect, in the sense of more investment in electric mobility and research and development.”
It has been 12 months since Elon Musk walked on stage and broke the news that Tesla was coming to Brandenburg. In the past year, a lot has happened in Grünheide: protests, community engagement and a massive construction site – not to mention the Corona pandemic. Still, with Tesla pushing full steam ahead with construction, and opponents determined to stand their ground, it seems the saga of Grünheide’s Gigafactory will play on for a while yet.