It’s autumn in Grünheide, a municipality located southeast of Berlin. Here, forestland and meadows are criss-crossed with lakes and winding rivers. The atmosphere is quiet and serene; the perfect spot for families and holidaymakers, at least for now.
Soon, this rural idyll will be disrupted by the clanking of machinery, locals fear. In summer 2021, Tesla plans to open its first European car factory in Grünheide (Gigafactory 4), where 150,000 Model Y vehicles, as well as battery cells, will roll off the production line annually.
Construction is already underway for the factory — and trees have already been chopped down — even though official environmental approval has not yet been received. Tesla will have to dismantle the factory if the final building permits are not secured, but CEO Elon Musk seems unfazed by this possibility.
By the looks of his Twitter, Musk has already settled into the idea of owning a gigafactory in the German capital, and has even floated the idea of hosting indoor/outdoor raves on the factory roof.
While it’s widely acknowledged that Gigafactory 4 could bring thousands of jobs and much-needed tax revenue to Berlin and its surrounding region, not everyone is happy with Tesla’s arrival.
‘We will fight back’
Since the beginning of the year, hundreds of local residents and activists from groups such as Green League Brandenburg have protested against the factory on environmental grounds. Some 413 objections have been submitted to the State Environment Agency.
Residents in Grünheide have expressed concerns about the gigafactory being built in a water conservation zone bordering a nature reserve, and about the mass clearing of forestland. So far, 92 hectares of trees have been felled to make room for the construction and, if permitted by the state of Brandenburg, a further 100 hectares of forest will follow soon.
“It’s extremely sad what’s going on here,” says Frank Gersdorf, spokesperson of the citizen’s initiative, Against Gigafactory Grünheide. “A whole area has been transformed from a place of holidays and recreation into a gigantic industrial region — and that isn't an exaggeration.”
Gersdorf fears that the health and lifestyle of Grünheide’s 8,000 inhabitants will be affected by Giga Berlin. Not only will the factory contaminate the air and water supply, but it will increase industrial traffic to the region — ruining the quiet, decelerated way of life residents have become accustomed to.
“There’s no argument in the world that can validate or explain that,” he adds.
On September 23, a public hearing was carried out in the town hall of Erkner to give citizens the opportunity to vent their concerns. Representatives from Tesla, the State Office for the Environment (LfU) and the local water utility attended. But no “meaningful answers” were given, according to Gersdorf.
The public hearings officially ended on October 2, says Tobias Lindh, a self-described “local observer of Giga Berlin”, who has been giving updates on the factory’s construction via his YouTube channel.
“The authorities are checking right now if there is anything new from the public hearing that might have an impact on the permission. The likely outcome of the public hearing will be added restrictions or requirements for the factory,” he says.
Local authorities are confident that Tesla will receive official approval. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, even praised the project in a recent interview with Editor Network Germany (RND), marking the construction as a positive example of what can be achieved with the right funding opportunities.
I don’t think people understood the dimensions that were involved in building the factory.
The battle isn’t over yet for the opposition, however.
“I don’t think people understood the dimensions that were involved in building the factory,” Gersdorf says. “But people will understand when the forests are all cut down, the animals and rare species have been exterminated, and the traffic makes everyone sick. Until then, we will fight back.”
Corporates vs citizens?
Over in the city of Berlin, people are beginning to speculate what impact Tesla will have on their local neighbourhoods.
Residents have historically pushed back against the arrival of big corporates to the city, fearing gentrification and the displacement of local businesses.
In 2018, protestors fought hard against the arrival of Google Campus in the district of Kreuzberg — and won. Now, Amazon’s plans to settle into a new high-rise building in the district of Friedrichshain in 2023 are being met with equal resistance from the BerlinvsAmazon movement, among others.
“In Berlin, there’s a very knee-jerk reaction to oppose tech companies coming in, especially as a lot of corporations don’t pay the tax rates that they should,” says Yonatan Miller, founder of Berlin Tech Workers Coalition, and member of Germany’s largest union, IG Metall.
I think people are worried that Berlin will become like San Francisco, if more tech companies come to the city.
In addition to building the gigafactory in Grünheide, just 35km from central Berlin, Tesla is also setting up a design office for white collar workers in the district of Schöneberg. Could the arrival of yet another corporate company — even one that claims to be doing good for the world — be just as unwelcome?
“I think people are worried that Berlin will become like San Francisco, if more tech companies come to the city. San Francisco has a history of being an incredibly bohemian and alternative place, but now it’s highly expensive,” says Miller, who moved to Berlin from New York in 2015.
San Francisco is an extreme example of what can happen to a city when the needs of corporations are prized above those of citizens.
In the tech capital of Silicon Valley, where a swathe of workers for Apple and Google have moved into the area, prices are rapidly increasing year on year. As a result, the region is suffering one of the worst housing crises in the world, with locals being displaced and homelessness increasing rapidly.
In the small region of Grünheide, the prospective arrival of thousands of Tesla workers is already driving property prices up, as commercial investors eye up land in the vicinity of the gigafactory, a recent article by Die Zeit revealed.
If workers pour into Berlin too, more homes and public transport infrastructure will be needed to accommodate them, says Miller.
“However, I don't think Grünheide is at risk of being gentrified,” he continues.
Brandenburg, the federal state which encircles Berlin, used to be a coal industry powerhouse. But, since coal production has decreased over the years, the region’s population has diminished and so have its employment opportunities. “I think the fact that Tesla will bring jobs to Berlin and the surrounding region is a very compelling argument [in favour of the factory],” says Miller.
Tesla’s competitive edge
The decision to welcome Tesla to Berlin is significant for the German auto industry too — especially as cars are the country’s biggest export.
While German carmakers are renowned for their manufacturing prowess, many have been slow to embrace electric technology. Volkswagen, for example, only announced its electrification strategy in 2018.
In addition, Germany, and Europe more widely, is still dependent on battery cells imported from Asia.
“Germany is still steeped in a combustion-based economy,” says Miller, which is why companies like BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen are “terrified” of being overrun by Tesla, which focuses exclusively on building electric vehicles.
Without Tesla, the other manufacturers [in Germany] would still be trying to avoid electrification.
Tesla may end up being a monopolising force in the German car industry, but this will be a good thing, says Lindh, who is a self-confessed super-fan and has been closely documenting the construction of Giga Berlin. His drone footage, which he captures almost every day, has as many as 25,000 views on YouTube, and his followers thank him for granting them insight into the growing Tesla universe in Grünheide.
“Tesla is accelerating the transition to sustainable energy across the entire mobility industry,” he explains. “Without Tesla, the other manufacturers [in Germany] would still be trying to avoid electrification.”
Berlin: the new auto-tech capital?
Miller says that Berlin, not traditionally known for being an industrial location, is already becoming “the new auto-tech capital,” ahead of Munich and Stuttgart, as more automakers settle in the city.
The Volkswagen Group, for example, has begun centralising its associates and subsidiaries that develop car software into one unit. Volkswagen Car.Software will be based in Berlin and Wolfsburg, among other places.
The city caught Musk’s eye too; he has indicated that Germany’s excellence in automotive engineering is one of the reasons he chose to locate Gigafactory Europe in Berlin.
“Tesla’s decision to construct its first European gigafactory just outside Berlin is a testimony to the vitality of the German capital, with its strong research landscape and creative business scene, as well as to the enormous potential of the surrounding state of Brandenburg,” says Germany Trade and Invest CEO Robert Hermann.
Its presence in the German capital will, according to Hermann, add another major industrial centre in the north to go along with the traditional industrial clusters in the south.
It will also help put Grünheide on the map — at least that’s what some residents hope.
I see an up-and-coming region in front of me that stands on sustainable feet.
“It’s something very special that Grünheide of all places is now the first factory in Europe,” says Albrecht Köhler, a nurse and a famous chronicler of Giga Berlin on Twitter. “With Tesla, a time of success could dawn. I see an up-and-coming region in front of me that stands on sustainable feet.”
Köhler’s also hoping that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial “spirit” — where creative people come together to recognise problems and develop solutions — will take root in Grünheide.
"We have many players in Berlin and Brandenburg who are at the top of their field, or who can become leaders [in environmental solutions] if they are prepared to face the challenges.
Maybe Grünheide will become the new Silicon Valley?”