Tesla’s water worries don’t end in Berlin; Giga Texas in booming Austin may also see drier weather

Tesla’s first European car factory has opened in eastern Germany after delaying approval from local authorities who feared the massive facility could deplete dwindling water resources. Elon Musk’s electric car powerhouse is opening an even bigger factory in Austin tomorrow, where environmentalists are also concerned about its impact on water in a fast-growing and increasingly drought-prone Texas city.

Located in east Austin near the Colorado River and Highway 130, “Giga Texas” opens with a giant “rodeo” on Thursday, about 20 months after construction began. The multi-billion dollar factory could eventually produce up to 500,000 vehicles a year, including Model 3 sedans, Y sedans, Cybertrucks and electric Semis. It can use about 1.4 million cubic meters of water per year (370 million gallons) to do this, a total that could reach at least 1.8 million cubic meters (476 million gallons) when a line battery is added, based on Tesla’s initial estimates. The company also accesses 10 acres of water per year from the river for “irrigation and recreational” use on its 2,100-acre property, according to the Lower Colorado River Authority. (* The Colorado River in Texas is separate from the Colorado River which flows through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.)

Tesla said the plant will be among the most water-efficient in the auto industry, but it opens as Austin’s rapid pace of growth, combined with drought conditions in central Texas and what environmental groups see lax management of river and underground resources by local authorities, raising concerns about long-term supply. The Austin area, which added more than 171,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, appears relatively water-rich compared to other parts of Texas, with many aquifers, streams, ponds, and the Colorado River, but demand for the resource is higher than ever.

“When it comes to groundwater, the way they manage it in Texas is what’s called ‘managed depletion.’ … They’re not managing for sustainability,” says Steve Box, founder and executive director of Environmental Stewardship, a local Waterkeeper Alliance affiliate that works to protect the Colorado River Basin and Austin-area aquifers. The area “may have a lot of water in the short term, but I wouldn’t want to be there in 10 or 15, 20 years.”

The Texas factory opens as prospects for Musk’s business have never looked better as climate change concerns and rising oil prices fuel demand for electric vehicles. When fully operational, the Austin plant – along with Tesla’s new Giga factory in Berlin, its fast-growing Gigafactory Shanghai and the plant in Fremont, Calif. – could give the company the capacity to build approximately 2 million vehicles per year for the next few years. That’s more than double what Tesla produced in 2021.

Austin “may have a lot of water in the short term, but I wouldn’t want to be there in 10 or 15 years, 20 years.”

Steve Box, Founder and Executive Director of Environmental Stewardship

Musk celebrated the start of production at Giga Berlin in Grünheide, Germany, last month after securing a permit from the Brandenburg water authority, one of several issues that has delayed its opening from the start. initial target of July 2021. This region of eastern Germany sees the river and groundwater levels falling, rainfall decreasing and lakes and ponds shrinking, says Irina Engelhardt, head of the hydrogeology department at the Technical University of Berlin.

Like the Austin plant, the German facility may need at least 1.4 million cubic meters of water per year. Tesla’s ability to expand production there is unclear due to the “tense” water situation in Brandenberg, according to Wasserverband Strausberg-Erkner, the local water board.

Austin Water, the local utility, declined to say how much water Giga Texas will need, citing a new state law that prevents it from sharing customer information. Tesla also didn’t respond to requests for comment, though water efficiency and recycling have been on the mind since Musk announced the Austin plant in 2020. increasingly rare as the climate changes,” the company said in its environmental impact report. . Thus, Tesla aims to have “industry-leading low water consumption per vehicle, even taking into account (battery) cell manufacturing.”

California was the birthplace of Tesla — along with SpaceX and Musk’s Boring Co. — and remains its number one market in North America and a source of billions of dollars of free money in the form of zero-emissions credits that the automaker of electric vehicles sells to other car manufacturers. But billionaire Musk has soured in the Golden State, due to environmental and worker safety rules that are among the strictest in the United States. Texas seems to be a better fit for libertarian Musk. In addition to moving Tesla’s headquarters to Austin last year from Silicon Valley, Musk also moved Boring Co.’s headquarters to Pflugerville, Texas from Los Angeles. It is also rapidly developing Starbase, SpaceX’s rocket complex in Boca Chica, Texas, a swampy region near the Mexican border.

Tesla was founded to help the automotive industry switch from carbon-based fuels to electricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as the climate warms regions such as the Southwestern United States, water is an increasingly critical consideration for cities and industrial facilities. Much of Texas is experiencing drought, including counties adjacent to Travis County, home to Austin. The city looks like an oasis compared to much of the state, based on mapping from Drought.gov, but climate change and population growth complicate the longer-term picture.

The average American uses 82 gallons of water a day, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. That means all those new residents Austin has added over the past decade have likely increased water use by 14 million gallons per day or 5.1 billion gallons per year.

In Texas, “every water supplier will be different, but almost all will face some combination of decreasing supply or increasing demand,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M. University and state climatologist. Booming Texas cities like Austin “are already experiencing increased demand due to population growth. Climate change is very unlikely to have as large an effect as population growth.

“Climate change is very unlikely to have as large an effect as the effect of population growth.”

John Nielsen-Gammon, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Texas A&M University

Automotive plants use water throughout the manufacturing process, including treating and coating vehicle surfaces, in paint booths, for general washing, rinsing, sprinkling, cooling equipment and air conditioning systems.

Tesla’s plan to save water in Austin includes capturing “at least 25%” of runoff from rooftops and directing it to an underground storage facility, using it to cool assembly machinery, the company said in its environmental report. Tesla estimates this could save 7.5 million gallons of water per year. It is also investigating ways to use treated wastewater from a nearby facility to reduce the city’s drinking water use by 40 million gallons per year.

Tesla likely turned to H2O Innovation last year to design two reverse osmosis filtration systems capable of treating 2,200 cubic meters of water per day to facilitate wastewater reuse.

The Austin plant site was previously a sand and gravel quarry operated by Martin Marrieta that looked like “2,000 acres of craters,” Richard Suttle, a company attorney, told the company’s oversight committee. Austin Water in an August 2020 meeting. “If you’ve ever seen what sand and gravel mining does to a property, it makes it look like a moonscape.”

Musk promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise” when he announced the Texas Gigafactory two years ago. “We’re going to make it a factory that’s going to be mind-blowing. It’s right on the Colorado River,” he said on a Tesla earnings call, promising public access to a boardwalk and hiking and biking trails.

That hasn’t happened yet, during the construction phase of the factory, although locals hope Musk will keep his word. Beyond its water consumption, the facility’s impact on local waterways is of concern to environmental groups, and rightly so. In January, Austin learned that a new Samsung semiconductor plant accidentally dumped 763,000 gallons of sulfuric acid-stained waste into a pond and dam creek, leaving “virtually no surviving aquatic life” in the facility. tributary that feeds Harris Branch Creek.

“Water supply issues are vast and difficult. These are real and we care about them, but that hasn’t been our primary focus,” said Paul DiFiore of the PODER Colorado River Conservancy Project in Austin. “Our primary focus has been water quality, and then in addition to that water quality equity.”

The eastern part of Austin, where the Tesla factory is located, is designated as a development zone, allowing for denser residential and industrial activity. “The creeks and waterways on the east side are much less clean than they are on the west side. It’s an issue of equity and environmental justice that we’re trying to get the drums banging on. The same problem occurs in the Colorado River watershed. (Local officials) just don’t think it’s as important to keep it clean.

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