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Two bronze statues that guard the doorway to Zwickau practice station in Saxony inform the story of Germany’s battle to wean itself off fossil fuels.

A crouching miner cradles a lamp in a nod to the lignite, a very soiled type of coal, that was dug from this a part of former East Germany, fuelling its factories and energy stations. His companion, an engineer, represents the automotive business that dominates Germany’s industrial heartland.

However whereas mining for coal is on the best way out, the nation’s influential automotive business, which employs greater than 830,000 folks, is heading in a brand new course. Volkswagen’s huge plant on the outskirts of the medieval city is the primary within the German carmaker’s empire to totally embrace the long run.

Thomas Knabel, the representative of the IG Metall trade union in Zwickau.
Thomas Knabel, the consultant of the IG Metall commerce union in Zwickau. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

The final inner combustion engine (ICE) automotive, a VW Golf property, rolled off the road right here in June 2020, as Zwickau turned the primary manufacturing unit belonging to a quantity automotive producer to totally change from constructing petrol- and diesel-guzzling automobiles to these powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Six years after the humiliation of its world emissions scandal, the world’s largest carmaker by output is main the cost for Germany’s carmakers, as they give the impression of being to finish their prolonged and profitable love affair with hydrocarbons by going electrical.

Dieselgate in 2015 – the place VW was discovered to have put in so-called defeat units in its automobiles to cheat emissions exams – left an indelible mark on the corporate. It might even have pushed VW extra rapidly to a lower-emission technique than lots of its home and worldwide rivals, and spurred robust new authorities guidelines. The European Union intends to finish the sale of latest petrol and diesel automobiles by 2035.

“We began this 4, 5 years in the past once we had the dialogue, what are the following steps for Volkswagen’s technique, the place are we going as an organization with our clients,” recalled Andreas Walingen, Volkswagen’s chief technique officer.

“We might be open on this additionally; the diesel disaster actually gave us, [a sense of] take into consideration your self, what’s your function,” Walingen stated.

Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s management board.
Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s administration board. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

“We sat collectively and stated we actually need to make a change, we’ve got to go for zero”.

VW’s guess on electrical prompted a €1.2bn (£1bn) funding within the Zwickau plant – out of €35bn the agency is spending on electrification – and a two-year transformation the place 85% of the location was transformed to supply solely electrical automobiles.

Now 5 all-electric fashions from three of the group’s manufacturers – VW, Audi and Seat Cupra – are already being produced, and will probably be joined quickly by a sixth, the VW ID.5, with the aim of reaching 300,000 automobiles a yr from 2022.

“It’s operating a lot better than anticipated, as a result of the market needs electrical automobiles, that’s the distinction,” stated Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s administration board.

“In 2017, not all people thought it was the proper determination, however they had been anxious in case one thing goes mistaken and no one buys these electrical automobiles, and we’ve got a plant with little output.”

The VW plant in Zwickau, Saxony, where since mid-2020, only electric cars have been produced.
The VW plant in Zwickau, Saxony, the place since mid-2020, solely electrical automobiles have been produced. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

VW now can’t construct e-vehicles quick sufficient. Present issues are all about provide slightly than demand, due to the continuing world scarcity of semiconductors utilized in every thing from controlling automotive batteries to seats.

Initially, an enormous concern of Zwickau’s 8,500-strong workforce was whether or not anybody would need to purchase electrical automobiles, in addition to what greater ranges of automation would imply for jobs.

“There was concern amongst younger and outdated. The identical questions stored arising. Will they nonetheless want me, what is going to occur to my job,” stated Maik Möckel, 39, head of meeting corridor 6, a cavernous area the dimensions of 11 soccer pitches.

Maik Möckel, head of assembly hall 6, where the VW ID.4 and Audi Q4 is built.
Maik Möckel, head of meeting corridor 6, the place the VW ID.4 and Audi This fall is constructed. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

The conversion left few areas untouched. Patches of manufacturing unit flooring needed to be bolstered with metal to resist 2 tonne electrical automobiles, together with their 500kg lithium-ion batteries.

The conversion introduced in additional robots, however the carmaker has assured it would preserve present employment ranges in Zwickau till 2029.

It was a “lengthy highway” to get the employees on board with the plant’s transformation, stated Jens Rothe, head of the highly effective works council on the plant, a German company custom the place elected staff characterize their fellow workers to administration and play a task in company decision-making.

“I’ve all the time stated we’re the icebreaker for the entire agency,” Rothe stated.

It’s the second important transformation on the website owned by VW since 1990 – the long-lasting Trabants had been as soon as constructed right here.

a Trabant car
The Zwickau plant as soon as constructed the much-maligned, however iconic Trabant. VW took over the manufacturing unit in 1990 after reunification. {Photograph}: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Photographs

The change to electrical additionally introduced Audi manufacturing again to the city the place the model was established in 1910.

VW’s funding in electrification has put it forward of lots of its rivals, in line with Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based unbiased automotive analyst. “VW are lobbying the EU and German authorities to say the transition ought to happen faster,” he stated.

“They’re fairly blissful to destroy the competitors, and if these CO2 laws targets get moved ahead. VW are method on course to satisfy their CO2 laws and different automotive producers have now obtained to hurry up.”

VW has already offered its electrical automobile platform to Ford underneath licence, permitting the US carmaker to construct electrical automobiles in Cologne for the European market.

The vast Hall 2, body shop of the VW plant.
The huge Corridor 2, physique store of the VW plant. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

But not all German carmakers are shifting on the identical tempo, and the speedy shift away from hydrocarbons led by VW has provoked concern concerning the influence on Germany’s export-led economic system – and the potential for mass job losses. The top of Mercedes-owner Daimler has known as for an “trustworthy dialog” concerning the influence of electrification on jobs.

In the meantime, VW’s chief govt Herbert Diess has not too long ago felt the warmth from the works council on the firm’s Wolfsburg headquarters over the way it plans to revamp the location, because it seems to be to spice up productiveness amid the semiconductor scarcity.

The corporate can be dealing with competitors on its dwelling turf from US electrical carmaker Tesla, which is constructing a manufacturing unit outdoors Berlin, the place it intends to create 10,000 jobs and produce 500,000 automobiles a yr at its gigafactory, which is able to embody the world’s largest battery plant.

“Particularly in Germany you’ve obtained specialist firms which were champions of business, specialising in specialist elements for the inner combustion engine,” Schmidt stated. “In fact there are going to be job losses, however what usually will get missed is there are going to be new job alternatives created as properly.”

Thomas Knabel, the consultant of the IG Metall metalworkers’ commerce union in Zwickau, stated they confronted difficulties in getting the area’s suppliers to take electrification severely. “Numerous auto suppliers requested whether or not it might actually occur. Nevertheless it was clear to us that it might, and can be an enormous strategy of change,” he stated.

Cars roll off the line at assembly hall 6.
Vehicles roll off the road at meeting corridor 6. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

At a nationwide degree, carmakers and the remainder of German business are ready to see what the presence of the Greens – together with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats – within the new coalition authorities, will imply for environmental coverage and its influence on business.

The three events are in talks to type Germany’s subsequent authorities, and amongst their challenges will probably be lowering use of fossil fuels – together with the reliance on coal for 1 / 4 of the nation’s electrical energy manufacturing wants – whereas considerably growing the nation’s electrical automobile charging community.

In Zwickau’s medieval sq., locals are simply grateful that the city’s largest employer has been given a brand new lease of life. “We now have to be happy they rebuilt the manufacturing unit. It’s undoubtedly an excellent win for Zwickau, and the entire area income from having it right here,” stated Hanfried Trültzsch. However at 78, he’s too outdated to get an electrical automobile himself, laughed his spouse, Hannelore. “At our age we don’t must get an electrical automobile, I’m pleased with my Mercedes.”

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