Business & Environment


January 30, 2023

See Tesla’s Gigafactories in Austin and Berlin Racing for Completion

Tesla’s pace of plant construction in Grünheide, close to Berlin, Germany, is baffling politicians, lobby groups and trade unionists alike. But in Austin, Texas, things are moving even faster, as exclusive satellite images show.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article (written in German by Jannik Deters and Julian Heißler. Access the original article here.

It almost seems as if all the cries of complaint, concerns about plants, animals and water simply roll off Tesla like drops of water off a Teflon pan. On Thursday, the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin-Brandenburg rejected a so-called hearing appeal by conservationists. Once again, the environmental associations Grüne Liga Brandenburg and Nabu, which had opposed early permits to build the Tesla factory in Grünheide, failed before a court.

This is not the first time that the carmaker has had to deal with such hurdles in Germany. Most recently, for example, it had to deal with a fine. This is because during a construction site inspection, the Brandenburg State Office for the Environment came across unauthorized tanks for liquids. But will Elon Musk and Tesla let such a “minor matter” slow them down? More likely not.

The e-car manufacturer is whipping the construction work along at a speed that sometimes demands a lot from the German rule of law and understanding of democracy. Politicians, chambers of industry and commerce, and trade unionists alike are astonished at the fresh wind that is now blowing on the deforested site. Just as they are about Musk’s sometimes thuggish and unyielding behavior.

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Tesla continues to build without ever getting final approval to do so, LiveEO’s exclusive satellite images show. The preliminary approval will have to suffice for the time being. Tesla wants to produce around 500,000 units of the compact Model 3 and Model Y vehicle series annually in Grünheide.

But that’s not all: at the beginning of June, the California-based company submitted additional application documents. The changes in the current process had become necessary, among other things, because Tesla is now also designing the largest battery factory in the world. This is delaying the approval process. Citizens had one month to voice their concerns. The satellite images show how additional areas on the site have long since been cleared. This is where the world’s largest battery factory is to be built.

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Tesla has postponed the start of production in Grünheide from July 2021 to the end of the year. But compared to other construction projects in this country, the speed is still astonishing. From the announcement of the project in November 2019 to the possible start of operations in a few months, just two years would have passed.

Still, it wasn’t fast enough for Musk. A few months ago, he blasphemed about German bureaucracy hampering innovation. The construction of Grünheide’s sister factory in Austin was more to his liking. Delays were not planned, nor was public participation. As in Brandenburg, speed played a major role in the selection of the site. Travis County, where Gigafactory 5 is being built, had an 850-hectare plot of land that was to be commercially developed as a gravel and sand mine in the years before the automaker became interested. The rezoning of the site had already been completed, additional access roads planned and approved, traffic studies prepared. But then the prospecting project failed. The plans ended up in a drawer. Until Tesla came along.

This is one of the reasons why Travis County was able to approve the gigantic construction project in just a few months. It took only six months from the first request to the county to the final approval and the signing off of the state subsidy package worth millions.

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Construction has now been underway since mid-August 2020, the pictures also show – and day and night. So more than a quarter of a year later than in Grünheide. At this point, the first buildings and facilities can already be seen on the site in Grünheide. At the beginning of 2021, Grünheide Austin is still several concrete pillars, square meters and roof structures ahead. But then the satellite images of the construction sites become more and more similar. In April, large parts of Gigafactory 5 are erected. In Grünheide, on the other hand, Musk has to concede shortly afterwards: the announced production start in July cannot be kept.

The Texans could still finish before the Germans, who started earlier. The first units of the Model Y compact SUV are scheduled to leave the factory outside Austin this year, followed later by the Model 3 sedan and the cyber truck.

But the pace was far from comfortable for everyone in Travis County. Union representatives and even a member of the County Commission, the county’s top decision-making body, would have liked to see the decision go a little slower – partly so they could negotiate tougher conditions with Tesla for the tax rebates the company insisted on for locating in Del Valle. But the vast majority of decision-makers feared losing the Gigafactory to a competitor if it was delayed. So they acquiesced to Tesla CEO Musk’s speed rush.