The sawmill only calms down once Christian Rösgen turns off his phone. The owner of this sawmill in a small town near Bonn in western Germany takes off his helmet and begins telling stories of Germans storing wood for fear of the impending energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine. A customer has just swapped his brand new gas heating for a pellet stove in order to be independent; Rösgen’s supplier, the pellet factory, is out of stock. Compressed sawdust pellets are now pumped directly into delivery trucks while still hot. The factory can barely keep up with production.
Wood pellets are a more energy efficient biomass
Rösgen told DW these stories just a day after Germany’s weather service announced the country’s heat record for this year – 40 degrees Celsius. But even with these temperatures, the Germans are preparing for a cold winter.
The timber industry at full capacity
Almost half of the homes in Germany are heated with gas. Since Russia began waging war in Ukraine, however, fuel supplies have become unreliable. The price has surged and supply cuts through the strategically important Nord Stream 1 pipeline remain unresolved.
Only a fraction of German homes use wood for heating
Customers tell stove builder Günter Meurer that they don’t want to freeze in winter. Demand for wood-burning stoves has doubled compared to last year and Meurer is struggling to keep up. New customers are calling and he has to deliver them at the end of winter. The delivery times of some manufacturers are already extending until next summer.
Demand has increased by 30-40%, said Alexis Gula, head of the German Association of Chimney Sweeps (ZIV). The customers of his business near Stuttgart explain to him why they turn to wood for heating.
“A year or two ago they wanted to be cozy and have a little more warmth,” he told DW. “Today is about securing energy supplies.”
The Germans have a specific word for security of supply — Versorgungssicherheit — which involves the fear of not having enough of something in stock. During the pandemic, Germans are worried about their toilet paper supply. Now it’s wood.
The German Firewood Association estimates that around 80% of the wood burned in Germany comes from the country. Wood pellets for stoves are produced from the waste products of the still booming construction industry.
The price of gas could triple by early 2023, Klaus Müller, chairman of the Federal Network Agency, told German media RND last week. In this context, heating with wood is much cheaper. Yet the price per kilowatt hour of firewood has increased since last fall because demand has been on the rise for some time.
Subsidies fuel demand for timber
To ease the climate crisis, the German government is helping homeowners pay for renovations that make their homes more energy efficient. The governing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals has renewed its commitment to subsidize energy-efficient buildings at the start of 2021. Anyone who replaces an oil-fired heating system with a heating system using biomass – including pellets wood – can get up to 45% of costs reimbursed by the government. Since the beginning of the year, nearly 60,000 new requests for biomass systems have been registered with the system.
In addition to public funding and the war in Ukraine, chimney sweep Gula cites another reason for the boom in furnace construction: From 2024, new emission rules apply and “many stoves still have to be replaced “, said Gula.
Burning wood poses a serious health risk
Because burning wood emits so many particles, the Federal Environment Agency says that biomass should no longer be used for heating at all. “Wood heaters emit about 1,000 times more particles than gas heaters,” said Marcel Langner of the government agency.
Almost a fifth of the total small particle pollution in Germany is due to wood burning in private homes. But fireplaces are only a fraction of the country’s heating systems.
Wood burning causes a lot of air pollution in Germany
Since the particles are inhaled, they cause health problems such as respiratory disease, but also cardiovascular disease, Langner told DW.
Once emitted, small particles can evolve chemically and pollute the air even far from their place of creation. But new technologies could reduce fine pollution.
Clever design reduces problems with wood
Especially if users ventilate or light fires incorrectly, additional pollutants accumulate. “I can eliminate human error with automatic controls. But there will still be emissions,” said oven builder Meurer. To reduce it, customers could install a special filter.
Marcel Langner of the Federal Environment Agency recommends centralized solutions: district heating plants can convert energy more efficiently and filter dust. In practice, however, such solutions are often lacking.
Rösgen sawmill rations sales for now
Back at the sawmill, Christian Rösgen has stories to tell about poor planning. There’s a new housing estate that requires him to drive his truck to each house individually because no one has thought of a centralized solution. And sometimes the tube to pump the pellets has to be piped through very small windows, over delicate floors and through bedrooms.
To counter the panic buying of wood, Rösgen has recently begun rationing sales. Now customers can only order three boxes of wood at a time.
This article was originally published in German.