Desperate Europeans Return to the World’s Oldest Fuel for Warmth

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Not far from Berlin’s Nazi-era Tempelhof Airport, Peter Engelke erects a new security gate at his warehouse, fearing that desperate people might steal his inventory. The precious commodity that is at risk is firewood.

Engelke’s actions reflect growing concerns 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 position as Russia cuts supplies amid the dispute over the Ukraine war.

At a summit in Prague on Friday, European Union leaders failed to agree on a price cap for gas amid fears such a move could jeopardize supplies to the region. Up to 70% of Europe’s heat comes from natural gas and electricity, and with Russian supplies drastically reduced, wood – already used by around 40 million people for heating – has become a prized commodity.

Wood pellet prices have almost doubled in France to €600 a tonne and there are signs of panic buying of the world’s simplest fuel. Hungary even went so far as to ban exports of pellets, and Romania capped firewood prices for six months. Meanwhile, wood stoves can take months to be delivered.

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Aside from worries 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. Strained households across the region are increasingly faced with the choice between heating and other essentials.

“It’s back to the old days when people didn’t want to heat the whole house,” said Nic Snell, managing director of British firewood wholesaler Certainly Wood. “They would sit around the fire and use the heat from the stove or open fire and go to bed. There will be a lot more of that this winter.”

The trend has prompted a boom in demand from Gabriel Kakelugnar AB, a maker of high-quality tiled stoves that cost an average of 86,000 Swedish kronor (US$7,700). The stoves can keep a room warm for 24 hours due to their intricate construction with various channels that retain and distribute heat.

“During the pandemic, people have started investing more in their homes. Of course that has now escalated,” 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 more than quadrupled and customers now have to wait until March for delivery, compared with just four weeks a year ago.

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For many Europeans, doing whatever it takes to stay warm in the coming months is the main concern. The concern is becoming more pressing as the winter chill approaches, and desperation for the heat could lead to health and environmental problems.

Read more: People in Poland are burning rubbish to stay warm this winter

“We’re concerned that people will just burn whatever they can get their hands on,” said Roger Sedin, head of air quality 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 people burn wood who don’t know how to do it properly.”

Particulate matter can get deep into 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.

Inexperience is also evident in Germany, where the German Chimney Sweep Association is handling a spate of inquiries about connecting new and old stoves, and asking customers about burning horse manure and other obscure fuels.

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There are also signs of hording. In France, Frederic Coirier, chief executive of Poujoulat SA, which makes chimneys and produces wood fuel, said some customers have bought two tons of wood pellets, even though less than a ton is usually enough to power a home for a year.

“People are desperate for wood and are buying more than usual,” said Trond Fjortoft, founder and CEO of Norwegian timber merchant Kortreist Ved. “It usually happens when it gets 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 is evoking disturbing echoes of post-World War II devastation. Since fuel was scarce, local residents cut down almost all of the trees in the central Tiergarten for heating.

While Berliners aren’t going to such extremes now, concerns about staying warm are widespread. Not only did Engelke set up an additional security gate to protect firewood, coal briquettes and heating oil, he also no longer had to accept new customers.

“We’re looking forward to winter with great concern,” he said.

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