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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR


The Tesla factory in Gruenheide, about 20 miles southeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg, on October 26. Tesla opened the factory – its first in Germany – earlier this year in an area characterized by forests and small lakes. The company has already started clearing trees for an expansion, pending approval from regulators.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR


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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

The Tesla factory in Gruenheide, about 20 miles southeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg, on October 26. Tesla opened the factory – its first in Germany – earlier this year in an area characterized by forests and small lakes. The company has already started clearing trees for an expansion, pending approval from regulators.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

BRANDENBURG, Germany — Deep in the pine forests just southeast of Berlin sits a massive Tesla factory that opened earlier this year as the first manufacturing outpost in Europe for the electric vehicle company. ‘Elon Musk.

The site’s main facility is the size of 130 football pitches, and it’s buzzing with activity, churning out a few thousand vehicles a week.

But Musk’s plan to triple the size of the operation runs into a big problem: The factory is in a drought-stricken part of the country where water is scarce, and it needs a significant amount of water. to do things like paint exteriors, cast vehicle parts and cool heavy machinery.

Tesla’s contract with the German government estimates that the expanded plant will use 1.4 million cubic meters of water each year, roughly the same amount of water a city of more than 30,000 people would consume.

So as local leaders and Tesla officials scramble to find enough water to keep expanding the site, already the biggest employer in this bucolic slice of eastern Germany, residents are worried. the possibility of a major shortage.

Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Local activist and politician Thomas Loeb, 55, outside the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on October 26. manufacturing processes and developments.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR


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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Local activist and politician Thomas Loeb, 55, outside the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on October 26. manufacturing processes and developments.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

“The water problems are huge,” said local activist Thomas Loeb, a member of Germany’s Ecological Democratic Party. “And it’s getting worse. It’s raining less and less. If Tesla continues to need it, people won’t have clean drinking water.”

The expansion of the site, officially named Gigafactory Berlin-Brandenburg, is now on hold pending approval from environmental authorities. Tesla officials are confident that additional construction will be blessed by regulators, as the company has already started cutting down trees in preparation.

But environmental activists and locals are right to worry about the pressure of the plant’s potential increase in water demand, even if it pales in comparison to other industries, such as power stations. region’s coal, said Irina Engelhardt, who heads the hydrogeology department. at the Technical University of Berlin.

“Because of decreasing water availability and increasing water demand, there is a lag,” said Engelhardt, who pointed out that eventually there may not be enough water for everyone.

The severe drought that has plagued Brandenburg for years has created ideal conditions for the spread of forest fires. Farmers in the region have reported severe crop losses due to intense heat and lack of rain, both effects of climate change, experts say.

The water conflict prompted legal action and forced the Tesla factory to delay its opening for six months. But Elon Musk literally laughed at the water problem when asked about it at a press conference last fall.

“That’s completely untrue. There’s water everywhere here,” Musk said. “Does it look like a desert to you?”

Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (right) and Armin Laschet, the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia at the time, talk to the press during a tour of the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on August 13 2021.

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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Tesla CEO Elon Musk (right) and Armin Laschet, the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia at the time, talk to the press during a tour of the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on August 13 2021.

Patrick Pleul/Pool/Getty Images

German official: Musk’s comment on water ‘not 100% helpful’

Mention Musk’s remarks to Brandenburg’s finance minister, Joerg Steinbach, and his eyes widen.

“In terms of perception in the area, it hasn’t been 100% helpful,” Steinbach said.

Steinbach was a key figure in getting Tesla to open a factory in Germany. He said he had known for a long time that getting it to full capacity would mean struggling with local water limitations.

“If you’re still using the water that’s directly under your feet, you still run into the problem of whether it’s sufficient for public use as well as industrial use,” he said.

Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

The Loecknitz River, a tributary of the Elbe, near the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on October 26.

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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

The Loecknitz River, a tributary of the Elbe, near the Tesla factory in Gruenheide on October 26.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

Government officials scoured the area for new water sources and drilled wells at Hangelsberg, about 9 miles from the plant. Steinbach said planners are installing pipes from the shafts to the Brandenburg plant. He wouldn’t say when he expects the project to be finished.

Engelhardt, the water expert from the Technical University of Berlin, is skeptical that supplying water from another part of eastern Germany will be a sustainable solution.

The new wells are “in my mind not a very sustainable and promising solution, because the water shortage is similar in most parts of southeast Brandenburg”, she said. “I fear that there will be a time when a shortage of water for certain uses will be a reality.”

Concerns are not only about water, but also the preservation of trees and sand lizards

Building the site in Germany is crucial for Tesla to meet its global demand for electric cars. At present, the plant manufactures around 2,000 cars per week. Musk hopes to increase that number to 5,000, but hurdles continue to arise.

“It’s probably a bit of a culture shock for Tesla, especially for their boss, for their chief executive, Elon Musk,” said Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based analyst who tracks electric cars in Europe.

It’s not just water. Local activists who fight Tesla on everything from preserving trees to saving sand lizards have delayed the timeline.

Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Two old signs in the forest declaring the nature reserve area in Gruenheide on October 26. The top panel is from when Germany was still divided and the area belonged to East Germany.

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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Two old signs in the forest declaring the nature reserve area in Gruenheide on October 26. The top panel is from when Germany was still divided and the area belonged to East Germany.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

“It’s come to the stage with the Tesla installation that these pressure groups are slowing down progress,” Schmidt said.

It is a question of perspective. Musk complains about the delays, but German businessmen refer to the relatively quick clip of the site’s development as moving at ‘Tesla speed’ – a sore point for local activists, who say he doesn’t There wasn’t enough community input before the sprawling site was approved.

Keeping Tesla’s German factory running at full capacity is crucial for Tesla to meet its growth targets in Europe, where around 20% of new cars sold are all-electric vehicles. Last month, European lawmakers struck a deal to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2035. In the United States, California has also pledged to end gasoline car sales from here this date.

Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker, faces increasing competition in the electric vehicle market from Volkswagen, GM, BMW and others. Analysts expect it to double the number of electric vehicles it produces in the coming years, using large factories in Fremont, California, and Shanghai, as well as Germany.

German Residents on Elon Musk: Messiah or Devil?

Back at his government office, Steinbach notes that in polls his department has conducted, the majority of people in the Brandenburg region support the plant, which now employs around 7,000 workers. When the plant is fully built, the company expects its workforce in Germany to be around 12,000 people.

But on Musk himself, like in America, people are divided.

“Fifty percent see the messiah in Elon Musk and Tesla. And 50 percent see it as the devil,” he said.

Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Local activist Heidemarie Schroeder, 69, in Gruenheide on October 26.

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Drought prevents expansion of Tesla’s first European factory : NPR

Local activist Heidemarie Schroeder, 69, in Gruenheide on October 26.

Jacobia Dahm for NPR

For Heidi Schroeder, a local resident and campaigner opposing the site’s expansion, the argument against the expansion is simple: stop now to save the local water supply.

“There is already a lack of water. Tesla will need a lot of water,” she said. “We don’t have that water.”

As for Musk himself?

“Go with your car. We don’t want you here,” she said. “Go to Mars for example. It would be magnificent.”


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