Protests as Tesla receives approval for factory purchase near Berlin

The east German state of Brandenburg has been anxiously awaiting this moment: The US electric car maker Tesla has agreed to a state property contract. But not everyone is in agreement on the project.

Protests as Tesla receives approval for factory purchase near Berlin
Protesters gather in Grünheide with signs reading "No industry in drinking water areas" and "No factory in the forest." Photo Credit: DPA

The founding of a new Tesla factory in Grünheide (Oder-Spree) has come a step closer to fruition, according to the Brandenburg State Chancellery.

On Saturday, the California company's board of directors approved the purchase agreement with the state of Brandenburg to acquire the approximately 300-hectare property, according to government spokesman Florian Engels.

READ ALSO: Tesla gets green light for factory site near Berlin

Tesla plans to build its factory on the site. The finance committee of the Brandenburg state parliament has already approved the purchase contract.

Tesla's planned factory site in Grüneheide, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

The Grünheide factory, located near Berlin, aims to create 150,000 Model 3 and Y electric cars annually, beginning in the summer of 2021. 

The company has plans to expand manufacturing up to 500,000 vehicles a year. Landesbetrieb Forst, the state’s public forest agency, estimated the price of the forested land near Grünheide (Oder-Spree district) at just under €41 million, but another independent report is still pending. 

The final purchase price will be adjusted based on the results of the second appraisal. 

The area, designated as an industrial zone, is currently being examined for weapon remnants left behind by the Second World War.

According to the State Chancellery, there is a high likelihood that unexploded US explosives, like grenades or bombs, could be found there. The municipality of Grünheide has therefore prohibited anyone from entering the site.

Local controversy

Tesla’s new venture in Grünheide is controversial among citizens. According to police, around 200 people in the community demonstrated against the US company’s factory plans on Saturday – doubling expected attendance numbers.

The protest only had 100 officially registered participants, according to the police. “No large factory in the forest” and “Secretly negotiated – environmentally voided” were a few of the slogans printed on posters.

One of the main facets the citizens had issue with is the clearing of the forest to make room for the large factory. As reported by the “Märkische Oderzeitung,” another group of about 80 people demonstrated against the car manufacturer's settlement with a walk in the forest on Sunday.

Elon Musk, CEO of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, speaks at a press conference in January. Photo credit: DPA


A pro-Tesla gathering also took place on Saturday: Around 30 people took part in the demonstration, the police reported. However, organizers estimated higher numbers with around 50 participants, including numerous families with children.

Banners read “Elon, I want a car from you” and “Innovate instead of blocking.” Some residents from the region arrived with their Tesla vehicles.

READ ALSO: What does Tesla's Berlin touchdown mean for German carmakers?

Anke Kranhold, whose family has lived in Grünheide for four generations, was also among the supporters of a Tesla settlement on Saturday.

“I have sons and two daughters-in-law who are engineers. In the future they may have the chance to cycle to work instead of commuting all the way to Berlin,” the 46-year-old told DPA. 

“Why does everything have to be so topsy-turvy?” a Tesla opponent told a DPA reporter in Grünheide, questioning how fast the process had been approved.

Another demonstrator added: “A billionaire from the USA shows up waving his banknotes, and suddenly everything is possible in Brandenburg.”

The opponents of the Tesla factory's construction fear, among other things, that the local water supply could be at risk. The building site is in a drinking water protection zone.

When a string of Tesla opponents passed the supporters, the two sides briefly traded verbal insults. The police were on site with numerous emergency services, and the situation quickly calmed down again.

Brandenburg's Minister of Economics Jörg Steinbach (SPD) expressed little sympathy towards Tesla skeptics in an article published in the “Märkische Oderzeitung.”

The community doesn't always have a willingness to support change, he told the newspaper. “We have a stubborn mentality,” he continued.

According to Steinbach, the people wanted good jobs near their homes as well as shorter commutes, but conversely oppose the new factory and don't want construction on their doorsteps.

Despite this, Steinbach said the reactions of Grünheide community were nevertheless constructive. 

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From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla’s giant Berlin car factory

In the green forest outside Berlin, a David and Goliath-style battle is playing out between electric carmaker Tesla and environmental campaigners who want to stop its planned "gigafactory".

From lizards to water, eco-bumps snag Tesla's giant Berlin car factory
Tesla's gigafactory outside the doors of Berlin. dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

“When I saw on TV that the Tesla factory was going to be built here, I couldn’t believe it,” said Steffen Schorch, driving his trusty German-made car.

The 60-year-old from Erkner village in the Berlin commuter belt has become one of the faces of the fight against the US auto giant’s first European factory, due to open in the Brandenburg region near Berlin in July.

“Tesla needs far too much water, and the region does not have this water,” said the environmental activist, a local representative of the Nabu ecologist campaign group.

Announced in November 2019, Tesla’s gigafactory project was warmly welcomed as an endorsement of the “Made in Germany” quality mark – but was immediately met with opposition from local residents.

Demonstrations, legal action, open letters – residents have done everything in their power to delay the project, supported by powerful
environmental campaign groups Nabu and Gruene Liga.

Tesla was forced to temporarily suspend forest clearing last year after campaigners won an injunction over threats to the habitats of resident lizards and snakes during their winter slumber.

READ MORE: Is Germany’s Volkswagen becoming ‘the new Tesla’ as it ramps up e-vehicle production?

And now they have focused their attention on water consumption – which could reach up to 3.6 million cubic metres a year, or around 30 percent of the region’s available supply, according to the ZDF public broadcaster.

The extra demand could place a huge burden on a region already affected by water shortages and hit by summer droughts for the past three years.

Local residents and environmentalists are also concerned about the impact on the wetlands, an important source of biodiversity in the region.

Tesla Street

“The water situation is bad, and will get worse,” Heiko Baschin, a spokesman for the neighbourhood association IG Freienbrink, told AFP.

Brandenburg’s environment minister Axel Vogel sought to play down the issue, saying in March that “capacity has not been exceeded for now”.

But the authorities admit that “the impact of droughts is significant” and have set up a working group to examine the issue in the long term.

The gigafactory is set to sprawl over 300 hectares – equivalent to approximately 560 football fields – southwest of the German capital.

Tesla is aiming to produce 500,000 electric vehicles a year at the plant, which will also be home to “the largest battery factory in the world”,
according to group boss Elon Musk.

In a little over a year and a half, swathes of coniferous forest have already been cleared to make way for vast concrete rectangles on a red earth base, accessed via the already iconic Tesla Strasse (Tesla Street).

German bureaucracy

The new site still has only provisional construction permits, but Tesla has been authorised by local officials to begin work at its own risk.

Final approval depends on an assessment of the project’s environmental impact – including the issue of water.

In theory, if approval is not granted, Tesla will have to dismantle the entire complex at its own expense.

But “pressure is being exerted (on the regulatory authorities), linked to Tesla’s significant investment”, Gruene Liga’s Michael Greschow told AFP.

In early April, Tesla said it was “irritated” by the slow pace of German bureaucracy, calling for exceptions to the rules for projects that help the environment.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier agreed in April that his government “had not done enough” to reduce bureaucracy, lauding the gigafactory as a “very important project”.

Despite Germany’s reputation for efficiency, major infrastructure projects are often held up by bureaucracy criticised as excessive by the business community.

Among the most embarrassing examples are Berlin’s new airport which opened last October after an eight-year delay and Stuttgart’s new train station, which has been under construction since 2010.

Brandenburg’s economy minister, Joerg Steinbach, raised the possibility in February that the Tesla factory could be delayed beyond its July planned opening for the same reason.

SEE ALSO: Tesla advertises over 300 jobs for new Gigafactory near Berlin