Tesla Protests In Germany Gather Strength

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Tesla wants to expand the size of its factory in Grünheide, Germany, just outside of Berlin to add a warehouse and freight depot — improvements that would make it easier to get supplies in and finished cars out. The planned expansion would increase the size of the Tesla factory from the current 300 hectares (740 acres) to 470 hectares (1160 acres).

Recently, the citizens of Grūnheide were allowed to express their opinion about the expansion in a non-binding plebiscite. According to The Guardian, 76% of eligible voters turned out. 3,499 voted against the plan; 1,882 voted in favor. The referendum is not legally binding, but will “serve as an orientation” for local decision-makers and Tesla bosses who have lobbied hard for the plan.

But many local residents are not waiting for the political process to play out and are taking matters into their own hands. German environmental activists are known to build platforms in trees and camp out in them — sometimes for months — in order to save them from being cut down. People who are not German may not fully understand the connection between the German people and their forests.

Perhaps the closest analogy would be how the Irish think of their leprechauns, who are thought to live in certain trees. Decades ago, John Z. DeLorean ordered a whitethorn tree removed from the site of his factory in Northern Ireland. Any fool (except John DeLorean) knows a whitethorn tree is where the little people make their homes. So the tree was removed, the factory was never fully completed, and DeLorean died soon afterwards. If there is a lesson there, it is this — “It is not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

The German police have given the protesters until March 15 to end their occupation of the forest that Tesla wants to cut down. After that, things could get messy. In fact, they already have. On March 5, a utility pylon supporting a high voltage power line to the Tesla factory blew up, shutting down production at the Grünheide factory. It could be up to two weeks before production begins again. For its part, Tesla says the shutdown could cost it millions of euros in lost production.

According to the New York Times, hours after the explosion and fire were discovered, a group calling itself Vulkangruppe — The Volcano Group — published an open letter on a website widely used by left wing activists claiming responsibility for the attack. “Switch off for Tesla,” the letter read. “A Tesla is a status symbol, statement and propaganda at the same time: for contempt for humanity, boundless destruction through ‘progress’ and an imperial, patriarchal way of life.”

Authorities said investigators from the state Office of Criminal Investigation had started an inquiry. “If the initial findings are confirmed, this is a perfidious attack on our electricity infrastructure,” said Michael Stübgen, Brandenburg’s interior minister and top security official. “This will have consequences.”

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, said on X that the attackers were “either the dumbest eco-terrorists on Earth” or “puppets of those who don’t have good environmental goals.”

He added that “stopping production of electric vehicles, rather than fossil fuel vehicles, ist extrem dumm,” using the German phrase for “extremely dumb.” On another post, Musk referred to the environmental movement in Germany as militants. That post included two emojis, one of a bat and the other a pile of dung. Put together, they convey the message that the people responsible are batshit crazy.

Bloomberg Reports On Tesla Germany

But are they? Bloomberg sent reporter Monica Raymunt to find out. She says she spent five hours talking with activists and residents of Grünheide to better understand how years of tensions between the town and Tesla culminated in public infrastructure near the plant going up in flames. “I walked away with a greater depth of understanding of how and why a recent mail-in survey regarding Tesla’s expansion plans resulted in a 70% participation rate. Almost two-thirds of those respondents were opposed.”

Tesla’s chief executive officer — that would be Elon — has long been dismissive of opposition to Tesla’s plans. He laughed off the notion that water would be an issue during a visit to what at the time was still just a construction site in August 2021, and has responded to this week’s incident with a series of insults.

Raymunt says the people she met were neither dumb, militant, nor crazy. None of them condoned or endorsed the fire. Contrary to Musk’s portrayal of them as nuts, their longstanding concerns have only been reinforced by recent events. Just last week, the local water authority revealed Tesla was “constantly and significantly” exceeding limits for the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that’s allowed to be in its wastewater.

“Several requests and warnings remained unsuccessful,” the local water association wrote in a document made available to German news agency dpa. “A remedy was neither addressed nor promised for the future.” An extraordinary meeting of mayors and Tesla representatives was called a week ago today. The chair of the water authority meeting ended up resigning in protest over the shoddy handling of the issues.

Citizens Initiative Grünheide

The electrical tower fire on March 5 drew attention to the dozens of people camping out in part of the forested area surrounding the plant that Tesla wants to clear for an expansion. They have the support of the Citizens Initiative Grünheide, which has been spearheading opposition to Tesla since 2019 with flyers, newsletters, and knocking on doors.

“We wholeheartedly support the occupation, and we think it’s great that so many young people are engaging with this topic,” Manu Hoyer, the group’s co-founder, told me. The group posted a statement on its website condemning the suspected attack on the electrical tower.

On its website, this group of batshit crazy people sound rather intelligent and caring. “We are residents of Grünheide, Erkner and the district — of all ages and with different jobs and private backgrounds. Objectively and with scrutiny, we consider the facts. We are citizens, who look critically at the available data and facts about the Tesla settlement.

“We are a citizens’ initiative against the Gigafactory Grünheide which is independent of parties. Party based lobby work has nothing to look for here. Slogans of hate and denigration of people who think differently don’t belong with us. Come to us, use your democratic right, and get involved. Only together are we strong.”

Raymunt says she met a mix of locals and activists from across Germany — some from as far away as the Netherlands and Belgium. In addition to opposing Tesla’s expansion, some wanted to speak up for other communities that have felt steamrolled by multinational corporations with deep pockets coming to town. Examples mentioned include China’s battery giant CATL building a factory in Debrecen in eastern Hungary and battery materials miner Savannah Resources getting caught up in a political scandal on the coast south of Lisbon in Portugal.

The protesters were stoic as they carried 50-foot long wooden beams along a central path and bolted boards together for new platforms. Activists said Tesla’s threat to the forest, worker rights, and global resource exploitation were among the reasons for their presence. “I’m prepared to stay here until the expansion plans are off the table,” Rene Sander, a 28-year-old local, told Raymunt.

Criminal Investigation Opened

The public prosecutor’s office in the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder has opened a probe into a recent attack on the power grid supplying energy to Tesla’s Gigafactory in the Berlin-Brandenburg area by environmental activists camped out near the site, according to a news report by DW.

Office spokesperson Carola Ochs told German news outlet dpa on Thursday that investigations were moving forward after the incident in “all directions” and that it involved the criminal offense of sabotage of infrastructure causing harm to the community. Ochs said that Germany’s federal public prosecutor was also informed about the case and would have the right to take over the investigation if it wanted to or saw the need.

In separate remarks to dpa, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the “suspected left-wing extremist action” was a “serious arson attack.” She noted that thousands of residents in the greater Berlin area were left without electricity, and power cuts impacted hospitals and medical operations carried out by doctors. “We must have a tough response,” she said, while urging the public prosecutor’s office to take action and impose “severe penalties.”

The Volcano Group claimed the attack was a response to Tesla’s treatment of workers and the environment. A report on Thursday by Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel said that Tesla had consumed 451,654 cubic meters of water over the past year, well under the amount agreed upon with the local water authority.

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The Takeaway

There are many crosscurrents involved in this situation, with enough blame to go around for almost everyone involved. Elon Musk gets a failing grade for being an arrogant jackass who thinks that because he has more zeroes in his bank account than any person in history, that excuses him from acting like a human being. Federal authorities are certainly concerned that 12,500 workers have suddenly been idled. There is no word from Tesla as to whether they will be paid for the time they are not working.

Local authorities will soon face a critical decision when March 15 arrives and protesters are still occupying their tree houses. That’s a situation that could easily turn violent. EV advocates can bemoan the loss of several thousand electric cars that won’t get built on time, delaying the transition to carbon free transportation, if only for a few weeks.

There is no easy way out of this thicket, but one gets the feeling that if Tesla was less arrogant and confrontational, perhaps some middle ground could be found. That is not the Musk way, and so this staring contest will likely continue careening out of control until someone blinks.

The backdrop to all this is that Tesla is still the target of union workers in Sweden, a strike that has spread to other countries as well. Here again, Musk refuses to budge, which his supporters find admirable and his detractors find despicable. Something has to give and when it does, we will keep you fully informed.

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