Elon Musk jolted by German protests over Tesla factory plan
Heidemarie Schroeder fears her “little paradise” in the rural depths of Brandenburg could soon be overshadowed by a monster: Tesla.
“They’re going to destroy my life,” she said of the electric car pioneer that last year revealed it would build its fourth “gigafactory”, in Grünheide, 38km south-east of Berlin and a stone’s throw from her house. “My life will change forever.”
The November announcement by Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and founder, caused a sensation in Germany. Politicians and businessmen hailed it as a huge vote of confidence in the country’s auto and tech sectors and the industrial potential of Brandenburg, the somewhat sleepy state that surrounds Berlin.
But the reaction of locals like Ms Schroeder to the €4bn project has been less euphoric. Protesters have organised a series of noisy demonstrations this month, brandishing placards saying “No killer factory in Grünheide”.
At an angry town hall meeting, some wanted to know why the plant was being built in a water conservation zone bordering a nature reserve. Could it use so much water that it will end up draining local lakes? Will bills go up?
Others fretted that a huge increase in traffic would cause transport chaos. Still others were upset that Tesla was going to chop down a pine forest to make way for the factory. What, some wanted to know, would happen to the bats hibernating in its treetops?
Jörg Steinbach, Brandenburg’s economy minister, retorted that it was the “worst category” of forest, a plantation producing wood to make cardboard.
Locals booed. “A bad forest is still a forest!” shouted one.
The protests highlight a broader phenomenon in German society — the growth of nimbyism. Even industrial developments such as Tesla’s that point to a low-carbon future are coming under attack.
One of the biggest casualties is wind energy. There was a dramatic decline last year in Germany’s construction of onshore wind farms, partly because of objections raised by environmental campaigners worried about turbines’ effect on wildlife.
In the case of Tesla, authorities say opponents are in a minority. “Some people would be upset . . . even if they were building a chocolate factory,” said Arne Christiani, Grünheide’s mayor. “You’re never going to get 100 per cent consent.”
There have also been counterdemonstrations in favour of Tesla, which says it will ultimately produce 500,000 cars a year at the Grünheide site and employ up to 12,000 people. At one, a man held up a sign saying: “Elon, I want a car from you.”
Albrecht Köhler, a care worker who lives in Grünheide, is a Tesla fan. “It’s a great thing for the future of our town,” he said. “And it’s not like they’re building a big chemical plant. We’re lucky it’s Tesla.”
Tesla is already pressing ahead with the project. Having acquired the land for the gigafactory, dubbed “GF4”, for €41m, it is checking the 300ha site — close to the path of the Red Army’s advance on Berlin in 1945 — for unexploded ordnance. Last Sunday experts safely detonated seven bombs from the second world war. According to Tesla’s current plans, 92ha of forest will be chopped down by the end of February.
But the protests are loud enough that Tesla has been forced to adjust its plans. Having said it expected water consumption at its plant to be 372 cubic metres per hour, it later said it would reduce that to 238 cubic metres by using wastewater and cooling systems.
Mr Musk has tried to smooth ruffled feathers, tweeting last Saturday that “we need to clear up a few things”. The figure for water consumption Tesla had submitted was “possibly a rare peak usage case, but not an everyday event”.
“Giga Berlin/GF4 will absolutely be designed with sustainability and the environment in mind,” he said. He has said for every tree Tesla fells three more will be planted.
The environment is not the only issue bothering local residents. Some mutter that Mr Musk selected Grünheide only because it is a mere 74km from Poland. “It’s obvious the whole workforce will be Polish, because that way they can pay them less,” said one local woman, Karin, who declined to give her surname.
It’s a point that has been seized on by Alternative for Germany, a nationalist party that won nearly a quarter of the vote in Brandenburg’s 2019 election. “German workers must profit [from the gigafactory] without having to fear competition from low-wage labour,” it said.
The plant’s supporters have swept aside such caveats. Grünheide was set to reap significant benefits from the Tesla investment, Mr Christiani insisted. Patchy transport links to Berlin would improve, while more would be invested in housing and schools.
“For the last 20 years we’ve struggled to bring quality jobs to this town, and that’s why so many young people have left . . This could be a turning point for us,” he said. “Grünheide has really won the lottery.”
Mr Christiani noted that the town beat 300 rivals to win the Tesla prize. “First Nevada, New York, Shanghai — and now Grünheide,” he added. “It’s pretty impressive.”