Grūnheide Voters Say No To Tesla Factory Expansion Plan

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Grūnheide, Germany, is home to the only Tesla factory in Europe (so far). First announced in November, 2019, it attracted a number of objectors right from the start. Some local residents were concerned by how many trees needed to be cut down. Others worried the factory would deplete scarce water supplies. These are common objections to most new factory proposals. The concern about water is a sticking point in the plan to build a new Tesla factory in the state of Nuevo Leon in Mexico.

From the outset, residents of Grūnheide, which is about 20 miles from Berlin, have had concerns about the estimated 1.8 million cubic meters of groundwater needed to produce up to 500,000 cars a year. The Brandenburg region where Grünhdeide is located has been beset by drought conditions for several years. The site chosen by Tesla was once the location of a proposed BMW factory, which never got built.

In due course, Tesla was able to overcome the objections and get its European Gigafactory built. It officially opened on March 22, 2022, and has been manufacturing Tesla Model Y automobiles ever since. Every other manufacturer of electric cars is worried about a slowdown in sales, but Tesla is always in “go big or go home” mode. Now it wants to build new infrastructure that will improve access to the site and allow easier transportation of the finished vehicles.

Tesla Supply Chain Blues

The improvements would add a freight depot and new warehouses. The Tesla factory in Germany has experienced supply chain issues because of attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Just-in-time only works when the transportation piece of the puzzle functions as expected.

A kindergarten for employees’ children is also part of the plan. If built, it would expand the footprint of the factory from the current 300 hectares (740 acres) factory by 170 hectares (420 acres). It would also require cutting down about 100 hectares (250 acres)  of pine forest in the process, something that is a particularly sore topic in German culture.

Recently, the citizens of Grūnheide were allowed to express their opinion about the expansion in a non-binding plebiscite. According to The Guardian, 76% of eligible voters turned out. 3,499 voted against the plan; 1,882 voted in favor. The referendum is not legally binding, but will “serve as an orientation” for local decision makers and Tesla bosses who have lobbied hard for the plan.

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The mayor of Grünheide, Arne Christiani, and Tesla executives said the vote result would now prompt them to return to the drawing board. Tesla has repeatedly pledged to keep water use to a minimum and to recycle its wastewater rigorously. But local people say they fear contamination of their drinking water if groundwater levels drop too low. The citizens’ initiative, which is backed by several ecologists, points out that part of the planned area of expansion is in a water protection area.

Christiani, an independent, told the German broadcaster RBB that he regretted the referendum’s outcome and blamed negative publicity for the result. “Seemingly it has not been possible to convey to people that further important infrastructure projects, such as a new B-road or a railway station forecourt. Now the municipality has the considerable task of trying to find solutions to this.”

Alexander Schirp, the managing director of the Berlin-Brandenburg business association (UVB), also expressed disappointment, saying: “The Tesla investment is a lucky break for Grünheide and the whole of the state of Brandenburg. We think that rather than the risks involved, it should be the chances this investment brings with it which should be the main focus, and that includes environmental concerns.” The gigafactory employs about 12,500 workers.

In a statement after the announcement of the referendum result, Tesla described its expansion plans as “a big win for the community,” adding that it would “seek dialogue with all participants to decide on further steps.” The company said its goal was to “enable a significant transfer of the HGV-traffic on to rail as well as generally ensuring a speedy expansion of existing infrastructure around the factory.”

The Takeaway

Water is a concern almost everywhere today, as drought conditions impact more areas of the world and people begin to realize that many aquifers have been depleted or contaminated by seawater or chemicals. Aquifers take a long time to replenish and have to be protected from overuse.

On the other hand, the Tesla factory in Germany is responsible for a lot of economic activity in the state of  Brandenburg. Balancing the needs of society with the needs of industry is never an easy task. What Tesla and local leaders will be able to do to address the concerns of residents while expanding production is unclear. They don’t need the approval of voters but swimming against a tide of opposition is always a daunting task. It will be interesting to see how Tesla responds to this setback. Elon usually does not take kindly to people who stand in his way.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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