A street sign is already in place: Tesla is raising its Gigafactory in Grunheide Photo: Pascal Beucker
In Brandenburg, Tesla wants to build its Gigafactory for e-cars in record time. But that’s not enough for a sustainable change in transportation.
Bulldozers rattle across the ground, shovel excavators heap up sand, trucks drive back and forth, and more than a dozen cranes wait to be deployed on the huge site. On a Saturday in mid-August, work is in full swing at the construction site on Highway 10 in Grunheide, Brandenburg. The shells for the large halls are already in place. And so is the road sign on one of the access roads: "Teslastrabe" can be read on it.
Around 40 kilometers from the center of Berlin, a "gigafactory for electric cars" is being built, as Tesla founder Elon Musk calls it. Surprisingly, the had announced last fall at a gala in the capital that he wants to produce electric cars for the European market in Grunheide in the Mark Brandenburg. "The best cars in the world are made in Germany," he said, explaining the choice of location. The factory construction is fully on schedule, Tesla announced on request. From July 1, 2021, the first all-electric Teslas Model Y are to roll off the production line here. If everything goes as planned, 500,000 of the mid-size SUVs will then be produced annually in Brandenburg.
Tesla cars have long since become a status symbol for ecologically savvy high-income earners. According to the Bergisch-Gladbach Institute Center of Automotive Management, Tesla outpaced its Chinese competitors in a global comparison last year, and in Europe only Renault sold more e-cars in the first six months. Here, too, Tesla wants to become the undisputed market leader.
In May, construction work began in Grunheide after the pine forest was cleared. Activists had tried to prevent this with tree occupations. They left traces. "Tesla get lost," is written in faded green paint on a bike path leading to the construction site. "Tesla bats killed i. A. Vogel Grune" can be read on a white note hanging on a barrier. Axel Vogel, to whom the phrase alludes, is the state environment minister in Brandenburg and from the Green Party. His ministry has approved the early start of construction, even though the mandatory public participation process has not yet been completed. Legally, that is possible, says his spokeswoman. The Greens want the factory at all costs.
Signs of protest against the factory can be found near the Tesla construction site Photo: Pascal Beucker
If Elon Musk is to be believed, then Tesla is the solution to mobility in the 21st century and Grunheide is a place of the future. But how ecological are e-cars really?
Calculating the carbon footprint
Tesla is not the only manufacturer of battery-powered vehicles. All manufacturers have e-cars or at least a hybrid model – that is, vehicles equipped with both an internal combustion engine and an electric drive – in their range. The purchase is generously subsidized by the state. Before the corona pandemic, the federal government introduced a premium for e-cars, which was raised with the economic program against the crisis. When buying an e-car, there is a government subsidy of up to 6,000 euros plus a manufacturer’s rebate.
The reason for the generous subsidy: From next year, car manufacturers will have to reckon with heavy fines in the billions if their sold fleets – not the individual vehicle – do not arithmetically comply with the EU limit of an average emission of 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer and car. In the coming years, these limits will become even stricter.
That’s not a problem for Tesla, but it is for other automakers. In the first half of 2020, average carbon dioxide emissions for new cars were 150.4 grams per kilometer, according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority.
With electronically powered models, car companies can make up the carbon footprint of their vehicle fleets. They are allowed to book the e-cars as if no emissions were produced at all. On the one hand, this is true: When driving, there are no exhaust gases – and therefore no pollutants such as particulate matter or nitrogen oxides, nor carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand, this is not true for the production of the cars and especially not for that of the electricity used to charge the batteries. This complicates the calculation.
The electricity mix
The carbon footprint of e-cars depends largely on the electricity they run on. There are different studies on how good or bad the balance looks. As recently as June, a paper by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy caused quite a stir. The title was "Electromobility and climate protection: The big miscalculation. Electric cars would cause a whopping 73 percent more greenhouse gases than modern diesel cars. "Electric cars today de facto run on 100 percent coal-fired electricity," says one of the researchers, Ulrich Schmidt. "The increased electricity demand requires the additional use of fossil fuels."
The study is controversial among experts. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research sharply criticizes its methodology. It says the comparison between e-cars and diesel vehicles is skewed: for e-cars, 100 percent coal-fired electricity is used, the least favorable electricity mix, while for diesel engines the average of oil production is used. If the worst values are also used here, the picture is different. For its forecasts, the Kiel Institute also assumes that fossil fuels will still be generating 40 percent of electricity by the middle of the century – although the EU wants to be climate-neutral by then.
However, it is scientifically undisputed that only a functioning energy transition makes electromobility meaningful. If this is taken as a given, e-cars perform better than fossil-fueled cars.
This was also the conclusion reached by the think tank Agora Verkehrswende last December. For a study, Agora compared the emissions of the various technologies over the entire product cycle – i.e. from production and the use phase to scrapping and recycling of the vehicle.
There are two major factors: the electricity used in production and the electricity used for refueling. Study results show that between percent more energy is needed to manufacture e-cars than gasoline or diesel cars. Battery cells are also often manufactured in China, Japan or Korea, where fossil fuels (still) account for a large share of the electricity mix. So if you only look at production, e-cars have a significantly higher carbon footprint than comparable internal combustion vehicles.
But e-cars can make up for this when they’re on the road. If the electricity mix remained as it was in 2016, however, the savings would be small. After 150,000 kilometers, the e-car’s total CO2 emissions would be 12 percent lower than those of a comparable gasoline car and 3 percent lower than those of a comparable diesel. However, if Germany meets its targets and brings the share of renewable energies in the electricity mix to 65 percent, things will look very different. After 150,000 kilometers, e-cars would then be 24 percent more climate-friendly than gasoline-powered cars and 16 percent less CO2 than diesel. Assuming purely solar power for refueling, greenhouse gases could even be cut by almost half compared with internal combustion engines. "With the battery-electric drive, a market-ready technology exists to advance climate protection in transport now," says Agora CEO Christian Hochfeld.
If, in addition, the electricity mix of production also improves, the values will automatically improve further. Tesla also builds batteries in Brandenburg. The company also chose the location because the expansion of renewable energies is quite advanced here – so the conditions for production that is as sustainable as possible are good.
The raw materials
And it’s not just the source of electricity that’s a problem with e-cars. Especially for the production of batteries, raw materials are needed that are mined under catastrophic human rights, social and ecological conditions, warn development organizations and ecologically oriented NGOs. They demand: Manufacturers should be required by law to comply with certain standards during mining, for example with regard to the environment and workers’ rights.
The availability of raw materials is also a problem. The think tank Agora Verkehrswende warned three years ago that demand would increase if electric drives became established worldwide. Demand for cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite will increase significantly, and for lithium to almost 160,000 metric tons in 2030 and as much as 500,000 metric tons in 2050, even though only 35,000 metric tons are currently produced each year. The extraction of lithium is associated with enormous water consumption, droughts and salinization of the soil can be a consequence – which threatens farmers in Chile or Bolivia, for example.
Manufacturers also currently need about 15 kilograms of cobalt per battery. According to the experts at Agora Verkehrswende, demand from the automotive industry will also explode in this area, and graphite requirements will also increase significantly. Conventional mining is causing damage all over the world: Child labor is often part of the business. The population in the affected regions complains about polluted water and destroyed landscapes. Nickel mining in Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, releases acid mine water into the soil, rivers and groundwater.
Water is also a critical factor for the Tesla factory in Brandenburg. Critics fear that production could lead to water shortages in the region – the influx of thousands of employees could also cause this. Tesla downgraded the originally requested amount by 30 percent during the planning process and currently expects to need 1.4 million cubic meters annually. According to the state government, the factory’s previously planned gas-fired central heating system will be replaced with the introduction of heat pumps, as well as water coolers replaced with air coolers. This is expected to reduce overall energy consumption and emissions.
The big plus in the life cycle assessment of e-vehicles is their service life. This is much longer than that of a conventional car. Conventional vehicles are designed for a maximum of around 250,000 kilometers. "That’s barely enough to break in an e-car," says automotive expert Hans Lawitzke, who advises Ford’s European Works Council on strategy issues. An electric car can run for more than a million kilometers. It is currently not possible for conventional engines to achieve a longer mileage – because of the high level of wear caused by the constant mini-explosions inside them. What’s more, electric cars don’t have most of the wear parts such as V-belts, oil filters or spark plugs that combustion cars need.
A Tesal Model X with open gullwing doors stands on the construction site in Grunheide Photo: dpa
The switch to e-cars also has implications for jobs. About a third fewer employees are needed for production than for conventional vehicles. At Tesla in Brandenburg, however, up to 12,000 new jobs are expected to be created – while jobs are being cut on a grand scale in the German auto industry.
Tesla’s German competitors are also focusing on e-cars, albeit with a considerable delay. Since the end of June, only electric cars have been produced at the VW plant in Zwickau. There are now as many employees working there as there used to be when only combustion engines were produced there. This is possible because many more cars are now produced there. However, the strategy of compensating for the need for fewer employees by increasing production figures only works to a very limited extent. This is because it will not be possible to increase global demand for cars to the same extent. "Internationally, there is not enough purchasing power for this at all," says Lawitzke.
The charging infrastructure
Meanwhile, the ranges of e-cars are increasing, with new models reaching 500 kilometers. In Germany, there are currently more than 21,000 publicly accessible charging stations for just over 180,000 pure e-cars.. In the future, service stations will have to provide at least one charging station.
However, charging takes much longer than refueling. At household sockets, the batteries need more than twelve hours, at a fast charging station possibly only half an hour. The lack of a nationwide infrastructure for recharging batteries is considered one of the major obstacles preventing citizens from buying an e-car. Transport expert Muller-Gornert from the VCD does not accept this argument. "Only 10 percent of all trips are longer than 100 kilometers," he says. Most drivers can drive for two to three days without having to charge the batteries. And that ideally happens at their place of work or residence, not at a charging station on the road.
The German government wants to gradually increase the number of publicly accessible charging points to one million by 2030. By then, the government wants there to be 10 million registered e-vehicles in Germany. Muller-Gornert says that so many charging stations are not necessary. A third of the planned amount would be enough. "The charging infrastructure needs to be improved, but targeted," he says.
By 2030, the market will have long since turned in favor of e-mobility, car expert Lawitzke is convinced. "E-cars will roll up the market from above," he says. That’s because the batteries for e-cars will very quickly become much more powerful, and therefore much cheaper, than they are today.
Tesla has an advantage here. The company also wants to manufacture the batteries itself in Brandenburg. In any case, Tesla produces almost everything itself and is hardly dependent on suppliers. "That enables good quality control," says Lawitzke. And greater independence, which sooner or later will also be reflected in the price: VW, Mercedes, BMW and Co have outsourced as much as possible in recent years to cut costs. That is now taking its toll.
The restructuring of the industry means that some suppliers are already withdrawing from the manufacture of certain products, such as parts for diesel engines. Remaining manufacturers thus have more market power and can raise prices – making conventional cars more expensive. "Electric vehicles will prevail in a few years for economic reasons and displace internal combustion engines," Lawitzke is convinced.
This is also suggested by the forecasts of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (Bnef). According to the subsidiary of the Bloomberg news agency, electric cars will cost only as much as equivalent cars with combustion engines as early as 2022. Initially, this will only apply to luxury cars in the EU, but Bnef expects smaller cars and other countries to quickly follow suit.
The traffic turnaround
Whether e-cars will then be part of ecological and social solutions or problems will also depend on the traffic turnaround. Replacing the current stock of more than 47 million cars in Germany one-to-one with electric vehicles should not be an option, emphasizes Muller-Gornert from the VCD. The aim, he says, must be to redistribute road space, for example in favor of car-free inner cities. "We need to reduce car ownership and promote other forms of mobility where people don’t have to rely on their own cars," says Muller-Gornert. He welcomes the new Tesla plant anyway, as a boost for electromobility.
Marie Klee of "Sand in Getriebe" sees things differently. The group keeps blocking fossil fuel infrastructure in the name of climate justice, especially in the transportation sector. "Our current mobility system is only possible at the expense of nature and society elsewhere, even in the Tesla Model Y," the activist criticizes. "Instead of a pure drive turnaround, we need a radical transformation of the mobility system: away from car-focused individual transport and toward short distances and sustainable public transport." The auto industry needs to shift to producing streetcars, electric buses and vans, he said. Klee is also concerned that Tesla is not building just any cars in Brandenburg. A Tesla SUV consumes more energy than a small car, and that’s no different for electric-powered vehicles than it is for internal combustion vehicles. Klee says, "An e-motor is no justification for building heavy prestige cars."
But that’s exactly what Elon Musk wants to start as soon as possible in Grunheide, Brandenburg. The outlines of his factory are already clearly visible – although the approval process has not yet been completed. In September, the legally required citizens’ hearing on the factory construction is to take place. If Tesla does not get permission for the factory, the company will have to dismantle it at its own expense.
But no one expects that. The factory, which was built at record speed, is a counter-design to the nearby eternal construction site of Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Thomas Bareib, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Economics, therefore finds the Tesla project exemplary – not only because it is likely to shake up the German car market, but also because it could "revolutionize" approval procedures for industrial plants in Germany.