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At Tesla’s ‘Gigafactory’ site in Germany, Elon Musk comes up against green activism and red tape

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk visits the construction site of the company’s planned “Gigafactory” near Grünheide, Germany, in September 2020. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

GRÜNHEIDE, Germany — This month was supposed to be another crowning moment for Elon Musk, with the first German-made Teslas rolling from a new "Gigafactory" outside Berlin.

Instead, the self-styled "Technoking" is locked in an ongoing spat with German environmentalists over the factory's impact on the local habitat and water resources, while final planning permissions are still tied up in what Tesla has complained is onerous German red tape over plans unveiled in late 2019.

The $7 billion plant — which Tesla has nearly completed despite the pending approvals — is expected to be in production by the end of the year at the earliest.

That's still lightning speed compared with other projects in the region. Berlin's new airport opened last year 14 years after construction began and 24 years after the location was picked.

For Musk — who built a multibillion-dollar factory near Shanghai in less than a year — the foray into Europe has given him a taste of German eco-activism and entrenched bureaucracy. Add to that a smattering of NIMBYism and even sabotage. In May, electricity lines to the plant were set on fire.

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The battle with activists feeds into a wider debate over what potential environmental damage can be justified by “green” companies with the aim of cutting carbon emissions amid a global climate crisis, driven home by record-breaking heat waves in Siberia, the Pacific Northwest and nearby areas in Canada.

Electric cars come with concerns about the mining of raw materials and resources needed for battery production and difficulties in recycling them. But a switch to electric is seen as key to reaching climate goals, with the European Union wanting at least 30 million zero-emission cars on the road by 2030, about 10 percent of registered vehicles.

Walking along the edge of part of the site late last month, Steffen Schorcht, one of a group of residents fighting the Gigafactory, outlined some of their complaints. He says the company has not done enough to protect local wildlife and the environment. The factory is built on an area previously planted for timber and abuts a conservation area.

“Our critique is not against Tesla cars or the Tesla company,” he said. “Our critique is for them to use this area to build this factory.”

Battles from the beginning

Having lost their battle to prevent felling on all but a tiny portion of the site, environmental groups lobbied for more to be done to protect and rehome hibernating bats, smooth snakes and ants.

When the first stretch of forest was cleared last year to make way for the factory, a solitary tree was left standing as some bats needed to be left until they woke from their slumber.

But now they have zeroed in on what they see as a potentially bigger environmental concern: the project’s water consumption and polluting potential.

They complain that Tesla has not been upfront during the planning process, only submitting for approval last month plans for the addition of what Musk says will be the biggest battery cell production plant in the world.

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Musk has said any delay in the factory’s construction is a delay in the urgent switch over to renewable energy, with the plant expected to produce half a million electric cars each year.

In response to criticism over the factory’s water consumption, the billionaire quipped to reporters last year during a visit to the site: “We are not in a desert.” He said trees would not be growing there if there was a water shortage, promising to recycle as much water as possible.

The company’s thoughts on the German planning process were also laid bare in a letter it submitted to a German court April. Tesla representatives in the United States and Europe did not respond to requests for interviews on the new German plant.

“It is not ambitious to want to start production 20 months after the location decision has been made,” Tesla said in the April letter. Citing the role Tesla could play in reducing carbon emissions: “It is plain necessary,” it said.

Tesla complained that German planning procedures have been around for decades and have fundamentally not changed, while projects that hope to decrease “dangerous climate change” should be sped up.

All about water

But not everyone agrees.

“The end does not always justify all means,” said Christiane Schröder, the managing director of the environmental advocacy group NABU Brandenburg.

“He's right that the climate crisis needs to be tackled quickly,” Schröder added. “However, the climate crisis should not be seen as a singular event.”

Electric transportation is only a “tiny building block” of everything needed to move away from CO2 emissions, she added, noting that issues such as water and biodiversity cannot be ignored.

The site of the project partially lies on what has been designated for water protection in an area where about 90 percent of the drinking water comes from groundwater.

Information on what substances will be used in Tesla’s battery production is redacted in public documents, making it “incredibly difficult to judge how dangerous such a plant is for an area where drinking water is protected and which is in the immediate vicinity of fragile nature reserves,” Schröder said.

Also of concern to environmentalists is water scarcity. Despite an abundance of rivers and about 3,000 lakes, the region of Brandenburg — where the project lies — is one of the driest in Germany, with residents asked to conserve water this summer.

Amid criticism, Tesla has revised down its estimates for water consumption since its initial plans. It now says the Gigafactory and battery plant will require up to 1.42 million cubic meters a year. Brandenburg’s capital, Potsdam, a city of nearly 180,000 residents, consumes about 8 million cubic meters a year, according to the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten, a local paper. 

For the energy minister for Brandenburg state, Jörg Steinbach, who was instrumental in luring Tesla to the area, the site was an ideal one. It had already been zoned for industrial use for the construction of a BMW plant, which ended up being built farther south. It is flanked by both a railway track and a highway, and near a border with Poland, where it’s expected to draw some of its workforce.

He says there has been an “inverse proportionality of noise” compared with the general level of acceptance for the project, citing a survey last year that found 82 percent of Brandenburg residents supported the Gigafactory, which is expected to create 12,000 jobs in its first phase.

It will give a boost to the region’s infrastructure and economy, with Brandenburg’s industry having suffered significantly after German reunification, he said.

“We are not setting up a nuclear power plant. We are not setting up a chemical plant,” he said, estimating the work on the factory building is about 80 percent complete. “We are building a completely normal car manufacturing site.”

In addition, it comes with some of the most cutting-edge green technology that aligns with Europe’s climate goals, he said, comparing the Gigafactory’s establishment to a painful childbirth.

“Once you have that little wonder in your hand, the pain is forgotten,” he said.

'Culture clash'

Albrecht Köhler, a local resident who has been documenting the project since the outset, said he thinks the pressure from environmental groups has played a positive role in making Tesla think more about water consumption.

He saw his first Tesla in Sweden 10 years ago: “It was something special for me,” he said.

Now he tries to make it to the factory at least once a week to take photos and video, sometimes flying over the site with a friend in a four-seater plane. He puts the fuss over the Gigafactory partly down to a “huge cultural clash.”

“The Americans, they are very effective, they like to do big things fast,” he said. “The Germans are very conservative and have to think about all these things again and again. Maybe it’s a good clash, and both sides will learn out of this and can do things better in the future. That is my hope.”

In the nearby town of Erkner, many express mixed feelings. With homeownership traditionally much lower than in the United States, renters worry about being priced out as the area develops.

So far, the wins for environmental groups have been limited. Tesla was stopped from clearing some trees around the edges of the 740-acre site, but an attempt to seek an injunction to halt testing at the factory failed last month.

The latest set of plans submitted by Tesla are now open for a month-long period of consultation.

It could be followed up by another public hearing. The last one, in September, stretched for more than a week as local residents aired concerns.

Even though German authorities could still technically ask Tesla to return the site to the way it was given — because it was built on preliminary permissions — environmental groups appear mostly resigned to the fact that the factory is here to stay.

“At this point, it's really about doing damage mitigation and to see how the plant can be designed in such a way that it at least meets the minimum requirements for nature and environmental protection,” NABU Brandenburg’s Schröder said.

Schorcht, too, is losing hope. Regarding the chances of Tesla being asked to replant the forest, he said: “I think it’s impossible.”

Still, there are four phases of construction planned at the site.

“Our hope is to stop it at this phase,” he said.

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