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Univ. hosts seminar on Elon Musk’s gigafactory

Elon Musk’s aspiration to build a new factory in Germany was the focus in “Awesome or Rather Awful Elon Musk and His German Gigafactory,” an event which is a part of the Center for German and European Studies (CGES) online series. This construction is facing a lot of backlash from German conservation groups. 

According to the event’s description, this conflict “highlights both an old struggle between environmental protection and climate protection, and the new difficulty Germany faces as it must urgently reduce its carbon emissions from transportation and electrify its vehicle fleet while protecting air, water, and soils.”

Since 2019, Elon Musk has been trying to open a “gigafactory” in Grünheide, Germany, a municipality with 2.5 million residents. The issue with this location is that it is very close to two protected areas for fauna and flora habitats with a lot of biodiversity in. 

The gigafactory is expected to produce up to 500,000 electric cars each year and have over 12,000 employees. In order to build the facility, 740 acres of woods would have to be cut down. The factory is expected to use 370 million gallons of freshwater per year, and create 244 million gallons of wastewater. With the factory using approximately 372 cubic meters of water per hour, environmental activists are also worried about the factory’s impact on the drinking water supply in the region. Although there are a lot of water sources in the region, there is little rain and it is still a problem, as over the last 20 years the level of groundwater has continued to go down.

Local environmental groups have been opposing the opening of the plant, including Christiane Schröder, the managing director of NABU Brandenburg. The organization is a “branch of the largest nature conservation organisation in Germany,” according to the description. The goal of the society is to create “a world where animals, plants and humans live together in a fair way,” according to Schröder. The group was founded in 1899 as a bird protection society, which has grown to 25 regional groups with over 19 thousand members and 23 employees.  

According to Schröder the factory project began on a very short timeline; there were only four months between trees getting cut down and when they wanted to start the project there. The proposal came in November, while work began in February, so they were unable to properly check if there are endangered species there, as it was during hibernation/migration season. 

Schröder discussed laws regarding nature protection in Germany, highlighting that the country has a duty to treat this part of nature in accordance with the general European environmental network. In the area in question, there are two rare species: the smooth snake and the sand lizard. However in the case of a factory, the laws that concern it the most are laws about emissions. “Everything that is built has to be removable if the final emission test fails, but that is unlikely because they are cutting down trees to build the factory; they cannot uncut them,” said Schröder about the Tesla factory. 

Taking a step back from the Tesla factory project, Schröder explained how to get permission to build a factory in Germany in general. The requirements include detailed plans, analysis of soil and natural resources as well as the impact on residents. A plan on compensatory measures to be taken, and worst case analysis for accidental release of pollutants are also required. Then there is supposed to be a month of time given for the public to give feedback and have meetings to express their concerns. Only then can the company receive final approval to build the factory. Although Tesla has not received final approval yet, Schröder mentioned that they have failed some of these preliminary steps in the past; additionally, they have already begun cutting down trees at the site.  

In terms of responding to such projects, non-governmental organizations such as NABU have a variety of ways in which they can proceed. In response to the Tesla factory they “did as much as possible,” according to Schröder: they wrote their objections to the preliminary permissions, wrote to Tesla three times, had many talks with Tesla managers as well as politicians and joined a public meeting for eight days with their own lawyer. They also tried to advise Tesla on nature conservation measures, but it fell on deaf ears, according to Schröder.

Christiane Schröder studied biology with a focus on ecology and nature conservation, and has been a volunteer for species protection for more than 30 years. She has a special interest in amphibians, bats and habitat protection.

The event was moderated by Sabine von Mering (GER), and was the first seminar of the CGES Online series. The event took place on Wednesday, Sep. 22, on Zoom; it was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies (CGES). The next event in the CGES Online series will take place on Oct. 4, titled  “Politics of (Un-)Breathing: Policing Blackness in Europe.”

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