Tesla's Brandenburg construction setting records

The electric carmaker’s first European plant is rapidly taking shape outside Berlin. CEO Elon Musk hasn’t let environmental regulations, or the lack of a building permit, slow him down.

A baby Tesla plant.
A baby Tesla plant.dpa/Patrick Pleul

Grünheide-Once upon a time there was a forest – and within a few weeks there was a factory instead. That’s the only way to describe was is happening to the east of the city alongside the Berliner ring autobahn.

In the space of a few months, US carmaker Tesla had bought the 200-hectare plot near Grünheide for €40m, cut down all the trees and began construction on its first European “gigafactory”.

Tesla isn’t letting German bureaucracy slow it down. The firm reportedly submitted five applications that would enable them to begin construction early and without a building permit. Just one of the five applications has been approved by Brandenburg’s environmental agency but that didn’t prevent Tesla from just going ahead anyway.

A forest about to become a baby Tesla plant.
A forest about to become a baby Tesla plant.dpa/Patrick Pleul

Numerous concrete pillars have shot out of the sandy soil. The gargantuan scale of the factory halls is clear to see. Work has begun on the roof structure. A Tesla spokesperson said the factory will be completed even faster than its sister factory in Shanghai – mostly because of the use of prefab components in Grünheide. The ability to deliver materials by rail, rather than road, also helps. 

Despite all the construction, the plant still has no building permit.

“The aim is to make a decision in the autumn,” said Frauke Zelt, spokesperson for the state environmental ministry in Potsdam. The documents accompanying the application have been made public twice – resulting in several hundred objections. The application can be viewed online through 3 September.  At a public hearing planned for 23 September, anyone who submitted a complaint in writing will have a chance to express their concerns in person.

“We’re checking everything thoroughly. We won’t grant a permit before the hearing,” Zelt said.

From the start, environmentalists opposed the huge project because part of the land is a drinking water protection area. Opponents fear the factory could a have a drastic impact on the water supply of the region between Berlin and Frankfurt (Oder).

Apart from the vast amount of water the factory is expected to use, activists have been critical of the building technique. Tesla's plans called for securing factory foundations with 15,000 concrete piles that would have been driven deep into the ground.

“This would have irreversible effects. Inadequate test drilling and a lack of studies mean that it’s not possible to determine if and how much the surrounding groundwater will be adversely affected by the project,” said Thomas Löb, head of the Brandenburg branch of the Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP).

In response, Tesla altered its plans and said it would make do with 500 to 550 concrete piles. For the ÖDP politician, that’s not enough.

“That’s just cosmetics. Whether it’s one pile or 5,000 doesn’t matter,” he said. “Every pile is a danger,” because numerous natural aquifers are located directly beneath the factory.

Several with water with a high salt content, and some not far beneath the surface. “If a drill hits them and then hits a drinking water aquifer, it’s impossible to predict what impact that would have,” he said. “We have submitted a complaint to the EU Commission due to violations of EU water regulations.”

On Monday, it was reported that Tesla would present a mobility concept for its factory workers in the Infrastructure Committee of the Brandenburg State Parliament. Previously, Die Linke had complained that Tesla had previously cancelled its participation in the hearing.

One of the issues expected to be addressed at the hearing is the number of cars produced at the plant. Initially, there had been talk of 500,000 vehicles per year but Focus magazine recently reported that up to 2m electric cars could be a possibility.

“We need clear prognoses and clear economic figures,” Christian Görke (Linke), the former finance minister of Brandenburg, told Berliner Zeitung. “The information Tesla has provided so far has been very vague.”

The corporation has an obligation, he said, to clarify not just the water situation but also the traffic congestion resulting from delivery trucks and up to 10,000 employees commuting to work every day: “It’s the biggest-ever industrial project in the east. We welcome it."

But for it to become a success, all uncertainties need to be addressed. “We do not want any secrecy,” Görke said.

In July, rumours spread that Tesla was considering setting up a 35,000sqm office in the empty gasometer on the Euref-Campus, a centre for renewable energy and mobility businesses, in Schöneberg. The carmaker promptly denied the rumours but said that it was still planning an “Engineering & Design Center” with around 2,000 employees in Berlin.