A few kilometers from Berlin, a battle is being played out in the air of David against Goliath: the construction site of the “giga-factory” of the automobile manufacturer Tesla is faced with the refusal of a part of the population, worried about its water resources.
“When I heard on television that the Tesla factory was going to move here, I didn’t believe it,” recalls Steffen Schorch, behind the wheel of his German brand car.
At 60, this inhabitant of the municipality of Erkner, three train stations from the capital, is one of the faces of the fight against the first European electric vehicle factory of Tesla, which is due to open in July, in the region of Brandenburg, near Berlin.
“Tesla needs too much water, and this water does not exist in the region”, indignant this environmental activist, head of a neighborhood association and referent of the influential German NGO Nabu.
Announced in November 2019, the project was greeted with fervor in the country, proud of the honor given to the industry “Made in Germany”.
But it also aroused mistrust in the immediate vicinity of the future plant.
Demonstrations, legal action, open letters … residents, supported by federal environmental NGOs Nabu and Grüne Liga, did everything to delay the project.
Last year, justice even forced Tesla to suspend its construction, after a summary complaint from associations fearing the destruction of natural habitat of protected species of lizards and snakes.
Now, it is the water consumption of the future plant that is in question.
This could reach, through successive expansions, nearly 3.6 million cubic meters each year, or 30% of the region’s available volume, according to a survey by the ZDF television channel.
An additional weight in localities already in tension, affected over the past three years by summer droughts, say the associations.
“The water situation is bad, and will deteriorate,” Heiko Baschin, spokesperson for the local association IG Freienbrink, told AFP.
The risk of drying up of protected wetlands, a refuge for local biodiversity, is also worrying.
“The capacities are not for the moment exceeded”, assured in March the Minister of the Environment of Brandenburg, Axel Vogel, on German television.
But the authorities admit “the significant impact of droughts”, and have founded a working group to reflect on the issue in the long term.
The “giga-factory” will cover 300 hectares, producing 500,000 electric vehicles per year and will house “the largest battery factory in the world”.
The site was carried out at a rapid pace, according to the wishes of Elon Musk, boss of the Californian company.
In a year and a half, the vast coniferous forests have given way to several concrete foundations on an ocher ground, which trucks reach by the “Tesla Strasse” (Tesla Street).
The American manufacturer benefits from an exceptional prior authorization procedure for its site, which allowed it to start work even before receiving a building permit.
The final approval is however still under study, the authorities having to control the environmental impact of the project: if the permit was not granted, Tesla would in theory have to dismantle the installation at its expense.
But “there is pressure [sur les autorités de régulation]”, Michael Greschow, representative of the NGO Grüne Liga, told AFP.
At the end of March, Tesla said he was “irritated” by the slowness of the procedures in Germany, calling in a letter for a “reform” favoring projects useful for the environment, which, according to him, is the case of his “giga -factory “
Economy Minister Peter Altmaier admitted his government “has not done enough” to reduce bureaucratic slowness in the country.
Despite Germany’s reputation for efficiency, major infrastructure projects are often slowed down by a bureaucracy deemed excessive by the business world.
Examples are numerous, such as the new Berlin airport, which opened last October after an eight-year delay, and the Stuttgart train station, whose construction, launched in 2010, is still not completed.
The Brandenburg Minister of the Economy, Jörg Steinbach, also mentioned in February the possibility that the Tesla factory opens late for this reason.