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Tesla Model Y in front of the factory in Grünheide: Best-selling car in Europe – made in Germany

Photo: Patrick Pleul / dpa

Elon Musk sleeps quite irregularly, as you can see from the posts on his social network X. It is therefore conceivable that the Tesla boss will be busy on his smartphone when the result of a vote that is important for the future of his electric car company is announced this Tuesday in Grünheide, Brandenburg. And this despite the fact that the community near Berlin is almost 9,000 kilometers and seven time zones away from Musk's home in Austin.

Like Austin, Grünheide is home to a Tesla factory, known in corporate speak as a Gigafactory. Tesla wants to expand the factory, but there is resistance to the plans among Grünheide's residents. They want to use the vote on Tesla's development plan to vent their anger.

The most important questions and answers about the controversy:

What is Tesla planning in Grünheide?

Tesla wants to expand its current 300-hectare factory by an additional 170 hectares from the first half of 2024 and, among other things, modernize its existing production hall on the site, build another hall twice as large, build warehouses and a water recycling plant. The plant will also have a freight station and a company daycare center.

The main reason for the expansion is that Tesla is slowly reaching its capacity limits: Grünheide can currently produce 375,000 cars a year; most recently, Tesla's German factory managed 6,000 cars a week, according to factory manager André Thierig. After the expansion, 22,500 employees will be able to produce one million vehicles there. This would make Grünheide the largest car factory in Europe and about the same size as Tesla's Chinese factory currently.

What is the mood in Grünheide and the surrounding area?

There are no opinion polls that document the attitude of around 9,000 citizens towards Tesla. However, during a roadshow at the beginning of January, where Tesla promoted the factory expansion, distrust towards the company was felt.

Covered-up industrial accidents in the past have tarnished the company's image: Accidents have repeatedly occurred when chemicals such as epoxy resin, paints and varnishes leaked or large quantities of released diesel fuel and fire-fighting water seeped into the ground. Residents, environmentalists and representatives of the water association repeatedly complained that they had not been informed about the risks or had only been informed upon request.

The fact that Tesla has broken a number of promises in the past doesn't help its credibility either. This also includes a functioning station for monitoring air quality, which has still not been set up. But there are also those who point out that their personal living conditions have improved since the Tesla factory opened. After all, the US car manufacturer has created 11,000 jobs, more than the population of Grünheide.

What are the most important arguments from supporters and opponents?

The supporters primarily focus on the progress that Tesla brings to the region. Grünheide, as a central location for the mobility transition in Europe, may attract more high-tech companies and guarantee jobs with a future. You cannot, on the one hand, demand a mobility transition and, on the other hand, block companies that are committed to this goal.

Practical reasons in everyday life also play a role. The regional train now runs much more frequently, the range of restaurants and pubs has become more diverse, as has the range in the supermarket.

Opponents, on the other hand, cite the negative effects on the environment. For example, the clearing of around 100 hectares of forest, light pollution and fine dust pollution in the air due to the massive increase in truck traffic.

The central argument, however, is water consumption. Environmentalists rely on figures from the Strausberg-Erkner water association, which show that the groundwater level is already dangerously low. Not only more frequent droughts, but also the forestry policy in the former GDR contributed to this. In the pine forests that are now typical of the region, a particularly large amount of water evaporates in summer. Some scientists say that an already water-scarce region is not suitable for a large factory like Tesla.

However, experts also confirm that more water is currently seeping away on the company premises than in the years when there was still a forest there, resulting in more moisture. In addition, Tesla has promised that even after the expansion of the plant it will only need the amount of water that has already been contractually guaranteed, because production wastewater could be cleaned and reused in the water treatment plant, which is also to be expanded as part of the expansion. According to the water association, Tesla has not yet used the promised amount of water.

How do politicians feel about the expansion plans?

There are cheerleaders for Tesla in local politics: Grünheide's mayor Arne Christiani describes the US company as a "lottery win" for the community. "30 years after the political change, there is now a prospect for young people to stay here."

The Brandenburg Ministry of Infrastructure is even warning of significant burdens for the region if a development plan is not decided. The infrastructure development in the region would then be severely inhibited and the shift of truck transport to rail would be prevented, according to a statement from the ministry on Tuesday. Brandenburg's Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke (SPD) also supports the expansion of the factory. He sees the Tesla settlement as the work of his state government anyway.

What happens if citizens refuse?

The vote is not legally binding. In the event of a rejection, it is not expected that the expansion will be canceled completely. However, Mayor Christiani said that he expected the majority of the municipal council to support the result of the referendum. If rejected, those involved would have to find a smaller solution that would allow everyone to save face.

Suggestions in this direction also come from environmentalists who do not belong to the fundamentalist rejectionist faction. Part of the parking space in front of the factory could be densified with a multi-story parking garage and thus free up space for a warehouse. Several hectares of forest could be preserved in this way.

What significance does Grünheide have for Tesla?

It is an open secret that Tesla boss Elon Musk likes to immerse himself in the Berlin club scene after visits to Grünheide. It takes less than an hour to drive from Tesla Street in the small town east of the capital to the world-famous techno club Berghain.

But Grünheide is also extremely important for the company: “Giga Berlin” is Tesla’s only factory in Europe. There it produces its Model Y SUV coupe, which will be the best-selling car in Europe in 2023. Before Grünheide began work in early 2022, Tesla had to import all cars sold on the continent from its factories in California and Shanghai. Local production not only helps the margin, but also the environmental balance.

Does Tesla even need a larger factory?

In fact, Tesla is currently experiencing an unusual slump in sales in Germany: In January, the US manufacturer's registration payments fell by a quarter compared to the same month last year to around 3,000 models. This cannot only be explained by the suddenly stopped e-car premium: in 2023 as a whole, when Tesla drove the entire industry into a discount battle, the electric pioneer sold nine percent fewer cars in Germany than in 2022.

However, the current trend should not distract from two facts:

  • Tesla supplies all of Europe from Grünheide, where electric cars were still booming at least in 2023: Despite the negative trend in Germany, the largest single market, Tesla sold almost 350,000 cars across Europe in 2023, according to the data service provider Marklines - a growth of 50 percent compared to the previous year.

  • How long the current electrical lull will last is unclear. As things stand, the EU ban on combustion engines will come in 2035, a good ten years from now, and the stricter EU emissions standard “Euro 7” will come at the end of 2026. Both projects, if they become reality, point in the same direction: the age of the combustion engine Europe is coming to an end.

  • Nobody can say with certainty today what the demand for electric cars will look like when the Gigafactory expansion is completed in the coming years. In any case, Tesla seems to believe in a golden future in Europe.