December 4, 2023

Tesla’s first European auto plant opened in eastern Germany after delayed approval from local officials who worried that the massive facility could deplete shrinking water resources. Elon Musk’s electric car powerhouse opens an even bigger factory tomorrow in Austin where environmentalists are similarly concerned about its impact on water in a fast-growing Texas city that’s increasingly prone to drought.

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

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

“With respect 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 affiliate of Waterkeeper Alliance that works to protect the Colorado River Basin and aquifers in the Austin region. The area “may have plenty of water for the short term, but I wouldn’t want to be around in 10 or 15 years, 20 years.”

The Texas plant opens as the outlook for Musk’s company has never been stronger, as climate change worries and rising oil prices fuel demand for electric vehicles. When fully ramped up, the Austin factory – with Tesla’s new Giga Berlin plant, its fast-growing Shanghai Gigafactory and Fremont, California, plant – could give the company capacity to build about 2 million vehicles annually within the next few years. That’s more than double what Tesla produced in 2021.

Austin “may have plenty of water for the short term, but I wouldn’t want to be around 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 winning a permit from the Brandenburg water authority, one of several issues that delayed its opening from an initial target of July 2021. That eastern German region is seeing river and groundwater levels drop, less precipitation and shrinking lakes and ponds, says Irina Engelhardt, head of the hydrogeology department at Berlin’s Technical University.

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 owing to Brandenberg’s “tense” water situation, 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 its mind since Musk announced the Austin plant in 2020. “Water is becoming increasingly scarce as the climate changes,” the company said in its environmental impact report. So Tesla has a goal of having “industry-leading low water usage per vehicle, even when accounting for (battery) cell manufacturing.”

California gave birth to Tesla–as well as Musk’s SpaceX and Boring Co.–and remains its top market in North America and source of billions of dollars of free money in the form of zero-emission credits the EV maker sells to other automakers. But billionaire Musk has soured on the Golden State, owing to environmental and worker safety rules that are among the toughest in the U.S. Texas seems to better suit libertarian Musk. In addition to moving Tesla headquarters to Austin last year from Silicon Valley, Musk also shifted the Boring Co.’s head office to Pflugerville, Texas from Los Angeles. He’s also rapidly expanding Starbase, SpaceX’s rocket complex in Boca Chica, Texas, a wetlands region near the Mexican border.

Tesla was founded to help shift the auto industry from carbon-based fuels to electricity to help greenhouse gas emissions. Yet as the climate warms regions such as the U.S. Southwest, 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 relative to much of the state, based on mapping by, but climate change and population growth complicate the longer-term picture.

The average American uses 82 gallons of water per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That means all those new residents Austin added in the last decade likely increased water usage 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 have to deal with some combination of decreasing supply or increasing demand,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University and the state’s climatologist. Booming Texas cities like Austin “already know about increasing demand from increasing population. It’s very unlikely that climate change will have an effect as large as the effect of the growing population.”

“It’s very unlikely that climate change will have an effect as large as the effect of the growing population.”

John Nielsen-Gammon, professor of atmospheric science, Texas A&M University

Auto plants use water throughout the manufacturing process, including treatment and coating of vehicle surfaces, in paint booths, for general washing, rinsing, hosing, equipment cooling and air-conditioning systems.

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

Tesla likely tapped H2O Innovation last year to design two reverse-osmosis filtration systems to handle 2,200 cubic meters of water per day to aid 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, an attorney for the company told Austin’s Water Oversight Committee in an August 2020 meeting. “If you’ve ever seen what sand and gravel mining does to a piece of 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 is going to be stunning. It’s right on the Colorado River,” he said during a Tesla earnings call, promising public access to a boardwalk and hiking and biking trails.

That hasn’t happened yet, during the plant’s construction phase, though locals are hoping Musk keeps his word. Beyond its water use, the facility’s impact on local waterways is of concern to environmental groups, with good reason. In January, Austin learned a new Samsung semiconductor plant accidentally released 763,000 gallons of sulfuric acid-tinged waste into a holding pond and stream, leaving “virtually no surviving aquatic life” in the tributary that feeds into Harris Branch Creek.

“Water supply questions are big and thorny. Those are real and we care about them, but it hasn’t been our primary focus,” said Paul DiFiore, with PODER’s Colorado River Conservancy project in Austin. “Our primary focus has been about water quality, and then on top of that water quality equity.”

The eastern section of Austin, where the Tesla plant is located, is designated as a development zone, allowing more dense housing and industrial activity. “The creeks and waterways on the east side are way less clean than they are on the west side. That’s an issue of equity and environmental justice that we’re trying to bang the drum about. The same issue is occurring in the Colorado River watershed. (Local officials) just don’t think it’s quite as important to keep it clean.”


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