Not far from Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, Peter Engelke puts up a new security door in his warehouse because he fears desperate people will steal his stock. The valuable commodity at risk is firewood.
Engelke’s actions reflect growing anxiety across Europe as the continent braces for energy shortages, and possible blackouts, this winter. The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline is the latest sign of the region’s critical stance as Russia cuts supplies amid the stalemate over the war in Ukraine.
At a summit in Prague on Friday, European Union leaders failed to agree on a cap on gas prices, fearing such a move could threaten supplies to the region. Up to 70% of European heating comes from natural gas and electricity, and with Russian deliveries drastically reduced, wood – already used by some 40 million people for heating – has become a sought-after commodity.
Wood pellet prices have nearly doubled to €600 a tonne in France, and there are signs of panic buying of the world’s most basic fuel. Hungary even went so far as to ban pellet exports and Romania capped firewood prices for six months. Meanwhile, wood stoves can now take months to deliver.
How serious is the energy crisis in Europe?
In addition to worries about shortages, the energy crisis is intensifying the spike in living expenses, with eurozone inflation hitting double digits for the first time in September. Resource-strapped households in the region are increasingly faced with the choice between heating and other essentials.
“It’s a throwback to the days when people didn’t heat the whole house,” said Nic Snell, managing director of UK wholesale firewood retailer Certainly Wood. “They would sit around the fire and use the heat from the stove or open the fire and go to bed. There will be many more this winter.
The trend has led to a boom in demand for Gabriel Kakelugnar AB, a maker of high-end tiled stoves costing an average of 86,000 Swedish crowns ($7,700). Stoves can keep a room warm for 24 hours due to their complex construction using different channels that retain and distribute heat.
“During the pandemic, people started investing more in their homes. It has of course intensified,” said Jesper Svensson, owner and managing director of the company located less than an hour’s drive from Sweden’s largest nuclear reactor.
Orders have more than quadrupled and customers now have to wait until March for delivery, up from just four weeks a year ago.
For many Europeans, the main concern is doing whatever it takes to stay warm in the months ahead. The concern has become increasingly pressing as the cold winter approaches, and the despair of the heat could create health and environmental problems.
“We are worried that people will burn what they can get their hands on,” said Roger Sedin, head of the air quality unit at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, warning against poor ventilation and trying to burn wet firewood. “We can see very high levels of pollution when you have people burning wood who don’t know how to do it properly.”
The particles can end up deep in the lungs and cause heart attacks, strokes and asthma, he said, adding the risk is particularly acute in urban areas.
“You have to think about your neighbors,” Sedin said.
Inexperience is also evident in Germany, where the country’s chimney sweep association is facing a flood of requests to hook up new and old stoves, and customers are inquiring about burning horse dung and other obscure fuels. .
Desperate for wood
There are also signs of storage. In France, Frédéric Coirier, CEO of Poujoulat SA, which manufactures chimney flues and produces wood fuels, said that some customers have bought two tonnes of wood pellets, when less than a tonne is normally enough to sustain a house for a year.
“People are desperate for wood and they are buying more than usual,” said Trond Fjortoft, founder and CEO of Norwegian timber seller Kortreist Ved. “Usually it happens when it starts to get cold, ‘someone says, oh, we should order some wood.’ This year it started in June” – around the time Russia cut gas supplies.
In Berlin, the crisis creates disturbing echoes of the desolation after the Second World War. With a fuel shortage, residents cut down nearly every tree in Tiergarten Central Park for heating.
While Berliners don’t go to such extremes now, concerns about staying warm are widespread. Engelke not only installed an additional security barrier to protect the logs, coal briquettes and fuel oil, but he also had to stop taking on new customers.
“We are looking at winter with great concern,” he said.
— With the help of Benoit Berthelot, Kari Lundgren and Will Mathis
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