Minister Who Invited Tesla To Brandenburg Discusses Giga Gruenhide

Jörg Steinbach Discusses Tesla Giga Gruenheide 9 photos
Photo: Tesla
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Tesla committed to calling its German factory Giga Berlin-Brandenburg and shortened it to Giga Berlin – which is not correct. The plant is in Grünheide, which is why we call it that way. It has changed its plans for it so many times it never gets a final permit.
It hates unions, something Germans have a tradition with. Why would any politician want to attract such a company? We talked to Jörg Steinbach about that, and the “Tesla effect” is a possible explanation.

Steinbach is the minister for Economic Affairs, Labour, and Energy of the State of Brandenburg. In other words, he’s the man who extended the red carpet for Tesla to install a factory in his state. We talked to him thanks to CLEW (Clean Energy Wire).

This German journalism organization aims to incentivize news about the energy transition going around worldwide. The conversation happened at one of the sessions of the digital research tour “The future of the European car industry: the challenge of industrial transformation.” We are among the 15 selected journalists to cover that. Despite the name of the event, the challenge and its outcomes are global.

Besides Steinbach, we also talked to Philip Barnstorf, the RBB journalist that correctly said Tesla made rough plans for its factory, hence the multiple delays. The company stated it would start its operations on July 1, 2021, and that will already not be the case. Tesla now talks about the end of the year, but that also does not seem feasible.

Tesla Giga Grünheide
Photo: Tesla
If it were, Steinbach would see the production of the first car there as a personal reward.

“I am still confident that we will see a car there, even if not yet for mass production, in 2021. It would be like a Christmas gift to me.”

We reminded him about the issue with the 4680 cells. Apart from not being ready for production yet, Tesla asked for permission to have a 100 GWh battery factory at Giga Grünheide on June 3, 2021. It will take quite a while to start its operations. Tesla said Fremont could supply the 4680 cells, but exporting lithium-ion batteries is not easy: they are considered hazardous materials.

Since the cars it plans to build in Germany will need these larger batteries, both situations make it almost impossible for any vehicle to be produced in Grünheide this year. Steinbach preferred to abstain from this discussion.

“I will not make any predictions about when that will happen. That is totally up to Tesla, but it would be good news if it could make a car there this year.”

Tesla Giga Grünheide
Photo: Tesla
We asked him whether it was Tesla who set a date to start operations in the factory or if Brandenburg had given the company any forecast of when that would be possible.

“They had to predict a date, and I learned that Tesla usually establishes these targets for the second half of the year. Apart from that, the teams inside the company compete with each other. Therefore, the German team had the personal ambition of getting the factory ready before Austin.”

Tesla is also building a factory in Texas, and it will probably begin its activities before Giga Grünheide. In Germany, plants can take more than four years to be completed. Yet, both Tesla and Elon Musk criticized the bureaucracy that they should know beforehand existed in the country. Steinbach did not feel it was an attack.

“It is not known that our permit process can start over if plans present significant changes. Musk has triggered this kind of discussion, even if not in the best way. We could remain slow and lose every race.”

After seeing the permit process restart twice, Tesla should already know that’s how things are. Despite that, even the minister criticized the bureaucracy in the country.

“Germans love to plan, but it is expensive and time-consuming. We have competing areas of the law creating bottlenecks: there’s environmental protection and animal protection. I’ll give an example: Tesla cut the trees in the area to start building the factory. One of the trees was not cut because it had a hibernating bat. It slept for weeks.”

Tesla Giga Grünheide
Photo: Tesla
Steinbach stresses his point is not against nature but to set priorities and follow them.

“Don’t get me wrong: I support the environment and animal protection, but we have to have priorities. If an area is set for industrial development, that should be the goal.”

The minister did not touch this subject, but it is bizarre that a protected area with a groundwater table was deemed appropriate for industrial development. Tesla faced many issues because of that, placing foundation piles in the terrain that ended up invading that table.

According to Steinbach, journalists tend to see only the negative side of things.

“There’s the public perception about the factory, and there’s the noise around it. We made a poll, and 85% of the residents around the plant area think it is a positive thing, 10% are against it, and 5% are neutral and want to see how things evolve there. Yet, we hear mostly about the 10% that are against it.”

For the minister, Tesla brought awareness to how much Brandenburg invests in clean energy generation. John Kerry, United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, recently visited Germany and praised Brandenburg for its environmental efforts. Steinbach credits that to the “Tesla effect.”

Another one of these effects can be a disregard for unions. Tesla has avoided as much as possible having unions in its Fremont factory and is allegedly working in the same direction in Austin. In Germany, it already said it would not join the employers’ association, with which IG Metall establishes collective agreements. We asked Steinbach about that.

“I have to promote talks between Tesla and the unions. What the company has assured me is that it will comply with all labor laws, such as allowing a works council to form.”

The minister said Tesla would have no special treatment at all in the country.

“We do have a red carpet policy to invite investors and show we are a friendly environment for them. Despite that, they will have no preferences whatsoever when they are established here. They’ll be treated like everyone else.”

That’s something Musk disputed months ago. After calling the permit process in Germany “irritating,” the Tesla CEO said his company deserved fast-track privileges for “spreading e-mobility.” We’ll follow closely how things unfold there.
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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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