Published on November 18th, 2019 | by Tim Dixon0
Tesla Gigafactory 4, Tesla’s Growth Cost, & A German Forest
November 18th, 2019 by Tim Dixon
Tesla recently unveiled that the location of its 4th Gigafactory will be near Berlin, in Brandenburg in the Grünheide municipality next to the GVZ Berlin-Ost Freienbrink industrial park, and that it will require the removal of part of a forest.
While Germany and land use are both outside of my writing purview (which is Chinese electric vehicle news), it ignited an old interest.
The removal of a forest and replacing it with industrial/service/housing/energy has been a quintessential environmental issue for a long time, and I foresee that this event will trigger contentious debate and will be used by Tesla detractors in the environmental and investment community, but I think we need to deal with this issue.
I myself experienced the very negative local blowback towards the expansion of a wind farm on the moorland near my hometown and how media can manipulate narratives.
Yet I also see this as a possible opportunity for Tesla to double down on its environmental protection and mission.
To start off, Tesla’s Fremont factory was purchased second hand (very sustainable). Since then, Tesla has had to build its own factories, and these factories have always been “outwardly” not very innovative when it comes to sustainable design.
Secondly, forests are not made equal. Cutting down a young forest compared to an old growth or tropical forest has different environmental impact.
So, thinking about this and the writing of Lloyd Alter at Treehugger, I thought I’d offer a solution and the reason I think it won’t happen.
I think the solution to the environmental impact is two fold:
Firstly, the design and manufacturing of the factory should account for the “upfront carbon cost,” material choice, and energy use.
Secondly, Tesla should pay for the creation of protected areas of “high ecological significance” and/or afforestation efforts in key areas.
The embodied carbon or “upfront carbon cost” should be part of the design process and efforts should be made to reduce its upfront and long-term carbon cost. This could be done by looking at the materials, design, and placement of the factory, including whether or not other unused facilities are available. Material choice could be interesting, as Tesla could build using more modern wood construction methods like Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT). Imagine if Tesla Gigafactory 4 was a massive wooden, renewable energy–powered, electric vehicle and energy storage factory. Germany being the birthplace of the Passive house (Passivhaus) offers up the opportunity for Tesla to find and modify the best practices of building design to create a more sustainable factory.
Environmentally sensitive areas on land and at sea are in danger of destruction/collapse, and Tesla could create a fund to actively protect and grow protected areas — money to protect the Amazon, marine ecosystems, and reforestation efforts around the world. A upfront donation and/or ongoing revenue share could provide protection of the most valuable ecological assets of earth.
My reasoning why this won’t happen
When I worked at the European HQ of Tesla, we had a large all-hands-on-deck meeting. A new executive was making a speech about joining Tesla. In this speech, he reiterated a point I have heard many times about Tesla, that it’s a startup. Compared to established car manufacturers, we were tiny. We had to be lean and fast moving for a car company, and the future depended on us creating meaningful change. Tesla is still a startup in spirit, even if no longer in scale.
While sustainable factory design and development is key to our future industrial development, I don’t think it will be seen as a key part of Tesla Gigafactory 4’s design process since Tesla will still see it as something the company can’t risk — it’s outside the company’s core mission and too untested.
Tesla is a leader in electric vehicle production and the energy transition, but this means it has to invest its capital in ways it sees as the best for achieving its long-term goals. It is working at a rapid pace to help create a sustainable society, and has to survive against powerful entrenched industries which would prefer to not change. So, I hope Tesla looks at Gigafactory 4 design and construction as somewhere it could innovate, and I hope the company is talking to top experts about this. Nonetheless, I cannot fault the company if it focuses on getting the Tesla Gigafactory 4 built in a less risky and mature way.
But a wood car factory is still a cool-sounding idea.