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Tesla gets final approval for ‘gigafactory’ near Berlin

After getting snarled up in German red tape, US electric car pioneer Tesla got the final go-ahead from authorities Friday, paving the way for production to begin shortly at its "gigafactory" outside Berlin.

Tesla construction site
The construction site for the Tesla factory in Berlin-Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

Officials in the eastern state of Brandenburg, where the factory sits, issued the final approval for the company’s first production site in Europe.

The green light was “a big day for Brandenburg, a big step into the future” state leader Dietmar Woidke told a press conference, adding that the approval process had been a “mammoth task”.

Brandenburg, formerly part of communist east Germany, is hoping for a job boost from the new factory and has profiled itself as a hub for the production of electric vehicles.

The beginning of production at the plant would be a “turning point for Germany” that showed it was possible to overcome bureaucracy and “do things faster”, said analyst Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Centre for Automotive Research.

The plant, in Grüneheide, to the southeast of Berlin, is slated to produce 500,000 vehicles a year.

Announced with much fanfare in November 2019, the project was warmly received by politicians in a country proud of its car-making tradition.

Elon Musk’s Tesla benefited from an expedited preliminary approval process, allowing it to begin construction before receiving the final planning permission.

But the American manufacturer’s early momentum was broken by a series of legal and administrative difficulties, in part prompted by angry locals with concerns over the environmental impact of the site.

READ ALSO: ‘Tesla isn’t above law’: Gigafactory construction near Berlin halted amid environmental concerns

Protected lizards

Together with national NGOs Nabu and Gruene Liga, residents did everything to stand in the way of the project, organising protests, making court appeals and writing open letters.

In 2020, courts ordered Tesla to stop work at the site after a complaint by local associations fearing the destruction of the habitat of endangered lizards and snakes.

The plant’s massive demand for water was also a sore point for residents in an area that has been hit by summer droughts in the last three years.

Setbacks also gave Tesla the opportunity to amend its application, adding a massive yet-to-be-built battery plant next to the main factory.

Concerns over the build were dismissed by Tesla’s rockstar CEO Musk, who sought to win over locals by hosting a country fair on the factory grounds in October.

Elon Musk Tesla Factory

Elon Musk gives an interview to the German media in Grünheide, Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

Thousands were in attendance at the event, where Musk declared his intention to begin production in November or December of this year.

The earlier target may have been achieved were it not for the extension of a public consultation deadline from mid-October to the end of November due to an administrative error.

“Seriously??!!” was the tweet Musk sent in response to the new delay, having already voiced his frustration at Germany’s slow bureaucratic processes on several occasions.

READ ALSO: Tesla holds ‘Giga Fest’ at disputed German e-car factory

Works council

Had approval for the plant not been given, the costs for dismantling the work that had been done would have fallen on Tesla.

Production at the factory should begin almost immediately with Tesla having already made a “limited” number of vehicles in a test, a spokesman told AFP.

Tesla’s next challenge is to find workers, while businesses in Germany are contending with shortages of skilled labour.

Employees already at the factory have seen to the organisation of a works council, against the American carmaker’s protestations.

The shop-floor organisation is common to German industries, and hands workers a degree of influence over corporate decision-making.

Elections to the works council, which took place at the end of February, were nonetheless won by representatives of “Gigavoice”, which is closer to management.

Currently between 2,500 and 3,000 people work at the plant, according to union sources, primarily more senior members of staff.

In time, the figure should rise to 12,000, according to local press reports, a figure which has not been confirmed by Tesla.

By Florian Cazeres

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TOURISM

German airline Lufthansa optimistic for 2022 as tourist demand bounces back

German national carrier Lufthansa on Thursday reported it slashed its losses in the first quarter and set its sights on a record summer for tourist traffic as demand recovers from the pandemic.

German airline Lufthansa optimistic for 2022 as tourist demand bounces back

The airline group’s net loss over the first three months of 2022 came to €584 million ($620 million), down from one billion euros in the same quarter last year.

The improved result owed in part to the pick up in air traffic as coronavirus-related restrictions were rolled back in many countries and fears over the Omicron variant ebbed.

READ ALSO: Omicron wave forces German airline Lufthansa to axe 33,000 flights

The number of passengers on Lufthansa flights “more than quadrupled” in the first quarter to 13 million, from three million in 2021, when travel restrictions in many markets were more severe.

“New bookings are increasing from week to week,” Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said in a statement, with demand rising particularly strongly among leisure travellers.

“More people are expected to fly on holiday” with the group than ever before this summer, Lufthansa said in a statement.

For business travel, the recovery was slower, with the group expecting traffic to reach “around 70 percent” of its pre-coronavirus level by the end of the year.

In all, Lufthansa expected to offer “around 75 percent” of its pre-crisis capacity over the year.

The group’s cargo division had a “record result” in the first quarter, Lufthansa said, as demand for freight remain high amid turmoil in global supply chains.

The segment recorded an operating profit of €495 million, up from €315 million in the first quarter of 2021.

Europe’s largest airline group – which includes Eurowings, Austrian, Swiss and Brussels Airlines – struggled at the outbreak of the pandemic and was saved from bankruptcy by a government bailout.

In response to the pandemic, Lufthansa bosses embarked on a major job-cutting programme which has seen over 30,000 positions shed since 2020, out of 140,000 jobs globally. The company said late last year it still had plans to get rid of 3,000 more jobs.

Lufthansa expected its financial performance “further improve in the coming quarters”, chief financial officer Remco Steenbergen said.

But people flying with the airline will face higher prices for tickets. 

The group said it would have to “pass through rising costs to customers”, Steenbergen said.

“Extreme changes in the price of kerosene” as energy costs surge in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine could have an unpredictable effect on the end of year result, Lufthansa said.

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