When worlds collide: The impact of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide
When worlds collide: The impact of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide

When worlds collide: The impact of Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide

by Elisabeth Hanak

Imagine you live in a calm region, dominated by fields, forests and even lakes and one day a large company opens a plant in your immediate vicinity. How would you react? Would you be excited, or would you be worried? This blog post takes a closer look on living conditions in peripheral regions marked by social changes and challenges on the example of the opening of a Tesla plant in Grünheide in the Berlin/Brandenburg region. What are the consequences of the opening at this location? And how do local inhabitants meet these challenges? In an interview, conducted in August 2023, with a teacher from the region, it turned out that the construction has a huge impact on many dimensions like the local political atmosphere, the economic conditions or the environment. And for some even on their personal life.

In March 2022 Elon Musk opened his new so called Gigafactory in Grünheide, in the presence of not just Federal Minister of Economy and Climate Action and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck (Die Grünen) but also the Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) himself as much as some of the highest regional politicians.[1] Politically, the plant was embraced as it seems and yet not everyone is happy about the opening. Not just protesting climate activists from Berlin opposed the project but also some people from the region itself are little convinced. For example, Leoni Klein (pseudonym), a teacher in the mid-thirties, who lives in a village in right next to the new Tesla factory. Leoni as she introduced herself to me makes the call with me from a classroom, probably after school and before her next appointment. She seems busy and confident. “I think individual transport is simply no longer in keeping with the times”, she says about the brand. Leoni is not exactly thrilled, rather skeptical about Tesla. “I also said in an interview that we have to get away from the idea that everyone has their own car, and for me, Tesla is simply a luxury brand for electric cars.” She seems practiced with giving interviews, not as if the situation is unfamiliar to her. She is in demand since she has been known to speak out against Tesla. However, it has not been like that when she first heard from the project. But let us pause for a moment and take a few steps back in time.

Leoni grew up in the “Speckgürtel” of Berlin and moved to an inner-city district of Berlin, where she loved it. But after a while the city became too noisy, and she decided to raise her children together with her husband in the surroundings of Berlin. They eventually bought a property in Village where they live for three and a half years now. Nothing unusual so far. But only two months after they bought the house, Tesla announced the construction of a new plant in the immediate vicinity. “At first it was like okay, it’s interesting. I was familiar with Tesla. But… I didn’t scream ‘Oh God!‘”. They knew before that industry would be coming, but they had “no idea what kind of dimensions it would take on”, she will say a few moments later. She starts networking with other residents to get to know the village better, and together they observe the planning process. Shortly before the deadline for objections, Leoni looks at the documents for the construction project and reads that a clarification plant is to be built in Village, in the middle of a drinking water protection area. Leoni is worried about the quality of the drinking water, not just for Grünheide but for whole of Berlin. And about the nature reserves in the area, which are also the reason why the living space in the area is limited. Meanwhile, Elon Musk promises 40,000 employees at the new plant. “Even more nature would have to be destroyed. It doesn’t fit together. So, the location is really the wrong one” is Leoni’s view. Grünheide is among other things intended as a local recreation area for people from Berlin. “We have to do something somehow”, she says to herself and so she becomes active. Building a network with others who are skeptical of Tesla, they submit objections and document incidents related to the factory in a “Timeline of Horror” which they have even put online.

The opening of the factory has implications on many spheres. Rents have increased, and so did the house prices. Shortly after the construction was announced, Leoni and her husband received the first offers for their house. Also, politics, social fabric and the social divide are not unaffected. Racist prejudices of people from the region project on new workers at Tesla. “Politically, completely different flags will fly here after the next local election”, which is next year. In the last local elections in Brandenburg in 2019, the CDU won by 0.6 percentage points over the SPD, with 18.3 percent, followed by the far-right AfD in third place with 15.9 percent of the vote.[2] In the 2019 district elections in the Oder-Spree district, where Grünheide belongs to, the AfD even became the second strongest party. [3] Leoni’s prediction for this year: “The AfD will clearly win here”. Because it was the only party that consistently opposed the project. And that is well received by the voters in the area, so her analysis. Leoni draws consequences and stands for the next local election. “I never wanted to be in politics, but I also don’t want to live in a village that is governed by the AfD.”

Besides her political engagement, Leoni teaches teenagers, and she seeks to encourage a critical debate about Tesla and other topics. I ask her about the teenager’s perception of the factory, but it seems like Tesla is not a big deal for them, unless Elon Musk causes another scandal like renaming Twitter to X of course. And even as a training opportunity, Tesla does not seem particularly popular. “They prefer to go to their parents’ company or go to a smaller craft business” is Leoni’s impression. Or they want to go to Berlin. It appears like not even for younger inhabitants Tesla has made Grünheide more attractive.

Time is short and so I want to know from Leoni whether she sees at least something good in the opening of the Tesla Gigafactory. “Well, there is one advantage: the more frequented train [to Berlin]. It no longer runs every hour, but every 20 minutes” she responds laughing. And adds: “But that could perhaps have been done differently”. My last question is about her future, if she wants to stay in Village and keep going with her political engagement. “Yes. Absolutely” she returns immediately. Then she is off to her next meeting.

[1] https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/neue-tesla-fabrik-in-grunheide-offiziell-eroffnet-6853399.html last accessed: 27.09.2023

[2]https://www.wahlergebnisse.brandenburg.de/wahlen/KO2019/tabelleLand.html last accessed: 27.09.2023

[3]https://web.landkreis-oder-spree.de/wahlen/app/kw2019.html last accessed: 28.09.2023

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