‘He’s a risk-taker’: Germans divided over Elon Musk’s new GigaFactory

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For the past 10 months, Silas Heineken has been flying a drone over one of Germany’s biggest building sites and posting the images on YouTube.

The 14-year-old self-named “Tesla Kid” has built a significant following, as tens of thousands tune in each week to see the latest developments in Elon Musk’s GigaFactory as it emerges at speed from the sandy ground of Brandenburg, south-east of Berlin.

“He is a huge visionary who has great ideas, which he has managed to realise,” Heineken said in an interview.

Silas Heineken, aka Tesla Kid

Having hung out on his bicycle to see Musk when he recently visited, the schoolboy sees an electric car factory close to his home in the sleepy town of Grunheide as a huge opportunity for the region.

It is by far the biggest industrial settlement in the area in a century and Brandenburg’s economics minister, Jorg Steinbach, has called it a chance for the region “to become a leading energy revolution location in Germany and Europe”. Musk has promised to create 10,000 jobs and turn out about 500,000 cars a year, starting with its Model Y, and construct the world’s largest battery plant at the site. His vision will put the region on the map.

Politicians talk off the record of their debt towards Musk, who they say could have easily gone to Asia instead, where labour costs are lower and environmental controls and construction standards less stringent.

But while landowners are among those rubbing their hands with glee, having seen land prices increase tenfold since Musk made public his intentions in November 2019, there are many opponents. Most of them say they like the bosky backwater of Grunheide precisely because it is not on the map, and are horrified when they see – particularly on Heineken’s videos, depicting the emergence of the foundry, the pressing plant, the paint shop and the assembly plant – the speed at which the project is coming along, and the extent of the woodland it has already swallowed up.

Pine logs piled up on the site where Tesla is set to build its new factory.

“Grunheide is just a small place of 9,000 souls, bordering a conservation area. Musk’s plans will turn it into a town of 40,000 – it will become like Wolfsburg,” says Werner Klink, referring to the city west of Berlin purpose-built in the 1930s around the production of the VW motorcar.

Klink is a member of the Grunheide’s citizens’ initiative, a group of locals who are campaigning to stop the project. Construction projects in Germany, he says, usually take time “due to all the permits you need and regulations you must abide by before you even put a shovel in the ground”. Musk has instead chosen the very un-German route of starting the work first and then securing the permits.

“Even if they told him he would not be allowed to continue, he will have already caused so much damage there’s no way he can take the site back to its original state,” Klink argues. “Immense, irreversible harm has been done to the nature, potentially to the groundwater, to the forest, the flora, fauna.”

One hundred hectares of pine trees (the equivalent of approximately 26 football fields) have already been felled, and a further 86 hectares are likely to follow, after a court ruling last month.

The barriers to Tesla come in the form of the sand lizard and European smooth snake, species that live in the woodland, Germany’s Nature Protection Union (NABU) has pointed out, and are at the heart of the legal battle to stop the project.

There is also the matter of an outstanding downpayment to the local environment agency of EUR100m to cover possible remediation costs, which a court also ruled on 18 December was reason to halt the project. Lawyers for Tesla have filed to extend the deadline for payment, the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel has reported.

Musk touring the site in his white Tesla car.

Despite 360 objections to the project having been lodged, authorities have effectively allowed it to go ahead by telling Musk he does so at his own risk. The practice is not so unusual in Germany, though on this scale it is unprecedented.

“Musk is a risk-taker, that’s what he does, and he’s banked on the fact they’ll never tell him to demolish his building, particularly when so many jobs are at stake,” says Klink, a retired geophysicist.

He says the speed with which the site has sprung up has left no time to properly inspect the site. “There’s a considerable danger that the digging will contaminate the groundwater. Just one metre below the surface there is salt water and there are signs it’s rising. If it mixes with the fresh water we’ll have a huge problem on our hands.”

A protest in December in front of Axel Springer House in Berlin over the German publisher’s tribute to Musk’s “ambition to make the world a better place” with its eponymous award drew climate activists and environmentalists, including NABU, the Society for Species Protection and the Grune Liga (green league).

Norbert Hess, the Brandenburg spokesman of the Ecological Democrats (ODP), a small political party, has accused the larger Green party of “violating their oath of office” by helping to accelerate the project.

Hess says many aspects of the project have been poorly thought through. Why was consideration not given to the brown coal mining area of Lausitz in the south of Brandenburg, looking for a new raison d’etre after Germany’s planned brown coal phase-out, he asks. “The land where the opencast mines are is already stripped of nature,” Hess says.

The Greens, in government in Brandenburg, say they welcome the project because it offers a viable alternative to the diesel motor, as well as creating much-needed local jobs.

The construction site.

Tesla shies away from talking to the media. It has tried to express that it is well-intentioned in the form of projects such as pledging to plant three times as many trees as it fells, and building fences to protect the lizards and snakes.

It also set up an information kiosk in the town, but that has been sparsely staffed. The coronavirus has reduced communication further.

Most statements come in the form of succinct tweets from Musk himself, such as one in the run-up to Christmas, which simply said: “Thank you Brandenburg and Grunheide” after the mayor doubled his commitment to the project by signing off plans to create a transport system around the plant, which is also to include a park-and-ride facility to transfer workers to and from the factory.

Klink said he has not yet met Musk, who occasionally turns up to see the progress of his project.

“I don’t have any need or desire to meet him,” he said. But he does have a nickname for the Musk sycophants and flunkeys: “‘SchliessMuskelkriecher’, a play on Musk’s name, mixed with the German both for sphincter and brown-noser. “At least that’s how our initiative sees it, even if I admit it’s rather rude,” he said.

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