Not far from Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, Peter Engelke is installing a new security door at his warehouse due to concerns about desperate people stealing his stock. The precious asset at risk is firewood.
Engelke’s actions reflect growing anxiety across Europe as the continent braces for power shortages, and possibly blackouts, this winter. The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline is the latest sign of the region’s critical position as Russia cuts supplies in the standoff over the war in Ukraine.
At a summit in Prague on Friday, European Union leaders failed to agree on a cap on gas prices amid concerns that any such move could threaten supplies in the region. Up to 70% of European heating comes from natural gas and electricity, and with deliveries to Russia drastically reduced, wood – already used by some 40 million people for heating – has become a commodity .
Wood pellet prices have nearly doubled to €600 a tonne in France, and there are signs of panic buying for the world’s most basic fuel. Hungary even banned pellet exports, and Romania capped firewood prices for six months. Meanwhile, wood stoves can now take months to be delivered.
How serious is Europe’s energy crisis?
Apart from concerns about shortages, the energy crisis is fueling a rise in the cost of living, with euro zone inflation reaching double digits for the first time in September. Struggling households across the region are increasingly faced with choosing between heating and other essentials.
“It’s back to the old days when people didn’t have the whole house heated,” said Nic Snell, managing director of British firewood retailer Certainly Wood. “They would sit around the fire and use the heat from the stove or open a fire and go to bed. There will be a lot more of that this winter.”
The trend has spurred demand for Gabriel Kakelugnar AB, a maker of high-end tile stoves that cost an average of 86,000 Swedish kroner ($7,700). Stoves can keep a room warm for 24 hours due to their complex construction using different channels that contain and distribute heat.
“During the pandemic, people started investing more in their homes. That has of course increased,” said Jesper Svensson, owner and CEO of the company, which is less than an hour’s drive from Sweden’s largest nuclear reactor.
Orders have quadrupled and customers now have to wait until March for delivery, compared to just four weeks a year ago.
For many Europeans, the main concern is doing whatever it takes to stay warm in the coming months. The concern has become increasingly urgent as the cold winter approaches and heat desperation could create health and environmental problems.
“We are concerned that people will just burn what they can get their hands on,” said Roger Sedin, head of the air quality unit at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, who warned of the bad ventilation and trying to burn wet wood. “We can see very high levels of pollution when there are people burning wood who don’t know how to do it properly.”
Particulate matter can end up deep in the lungs and cause heart attacks, strokes and asthma, he said, adding that the risk is particularly acute in urban areas.
“You have to think about your neighbors,” Sedin said.
The inexperience is also evident in Germany, where the country’s chimney sweep association is dealing with a flood of requests to connect new and old stoves, with customers asking about burning horse manure and other obscure fuels.
Desperate for wood
There are also signs of hording. In France, Frederic Coirier, chief executive of Poujoulat SA, which makes chimney flues and produces wood fuels, said some customers have bought two tonnes of wood pellets, when less than one tonne is usually enough to run a house for a year.
“People are desperate for wood and are buying more than usual,” said Trond Fjortoft, founder and CEO of Norwegian wood seller Kortreist Ved. “Usually it happens when it starts to get cold, ‘someone says, oh, we should order firewood.’ This year, that started in June,” when Russia cut gas supplies.
In Berlin, the crisis creates disturbing echoes of post-World War II desolation. With fuel in short supply, residents cut down almost all the trees in Tiergarten’s central park for heating.
Although Berliners don’t go to such extremes now, the concern about staying warm is widespread. Not only did Engelke install an additional security door to protect logs, coal briquettes and heating oil, but he also had to stop taking in new customers.
“We’re looking into the winter with a lot of concern,” he said.
— With assistance from Benoit Berthelot, Kari Lundgren and Will Mathis
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