Germany’s energy crisis is a signal to cut wood and stockpile

Germany’s energy crisis is a signal to cut wood and stockpile

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Tightly stacked ropes of wood line the home of one couple in southern Germany, while another family far north has lined their basement with shelves stacked with pasta, rice, cooking oil and tins of chickpeas, lentils and tomatoes.

In central Germany, a man who had long been reliant on the government found himself able to go weeks without electricity or heat; he has filled his attic with food coolers, along with a camping stove, gas cylinders and solar power equipment to keep the lights on and stay connected online. Others submit to the cold waters of a local lake for a daily dip, forgoing a hot shower at home.

In Europe’s biggest economy, people are stocking up and downsizing. Although authorities publish lists of essential items to prepare for power outages or natural gas restrictions, many Germans are taking matters into their own hands to ensure they have a warm home and food on the table this winter.

A majority of Germans, as many as 60 percent, trust their government, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But with a seemingly endless barrage of Russian-launched missiles bearing down on Ukraine, helping to drive up energy and food prices at home, many Germans decided that if they faced the worst, they might be on their own. They want to be prepared.

Leo Baumler spends his afternoons splitting logs from trees he cuts down in a forest owned by his sister near his home near Weiden, in the southern state of Bavaria. He piles them up in his woodshed until he puts them in the stove in the kitchen of the low house where he grew up.

While thousands of people in Germany have reopened closed fireplaces and installed wood-burning stoves to avoid burning natural gas, the price of which has doubled in the past year, Mr. Baumler is heating his rooms, boiling water for his morning coffee and baking pizza with his wood stove as always.

Years ago, he recalls, his father refused to install a gas central heating system when the first pipelines reached his home region, linking the Siberian gas fields with what was then West Germany, across the Iron Curtain. For decades, natural gas delivered by pipeline from Russia was plentiful and cheap. Half of homes in Germany use gas for heating.

Even before the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February, flows of Russian gas began to decline, causing the wholesale price to double. But German leaders, citing reliable Soviet-era supplies, refused to believe that President Vladimir Putin would cut Europe off gas in retaliation for European Union support for Ukraine. However, many Germans, whose bills were already starting to grow at the end of 2021, began to prepare.

Around the time Russia made its first cut in gas supplies in late spring, the government began floating the idea that Germans might face restrictions in the winter. This prompted many people to go to heating shops to buy wood stoves, and since then the price of wood cord and wood pellets has jumped by more than 87 percent compared to 2021.

But Mr. Bäumler did not notice.

“Since I live in the middle of the forest in eastern Bavaria, surrounded by trees,” he said, “I don’t have to worry about running out of wood.”

While some Germans are preparing for possible power or gas outages, others are focusing on ways to save energy. The country’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, became the subject of jokes this summer when he encouraged Germans to take shorter, cooler showers.

Gregor Rantz and his friends needed no encouragement. Every morning between 8 and 9, they meet to skinny dip in a lake in the Wedemark district, north of Hanover. They carry out their morning ritual long before the energy crisis – even when temperatures drop below freezing.

Although the gathering is also social, Mr. Rantz said that once the energy crisis began, it made more sense. Bathing naked – common in much of Germany — every morning serves as an effective take on the cold shower approach to the extreme.

“I shower once a week when I go to the sauna,” he said. “Of course I have a shower at home, but I don’t use it. The towel works well.”

Bernd Sebastian relied on a 25-year-old gas furnace to power the boiler that provided hot water and heating for his home. When the price of gas started to rise, he upgraded his furnace, but also hooked up his wood stove to heat the water in his main boiler.

“We sit in front of our fireplace every day and it heats the water in my water heater and the heater draws from that,” he said. When the fireplace is turned off, the gas stove is turned on.

He said he was considering getting one heat pump, which draws heat from the air. “That would be ideal, but it runs on electricity and with electricity prices going up, it won’t save me any money unless I install solar panels, which is another expense.”

Mr. Sebastian collects wood from a nearby forest that is managed by a friend who alerts him when trees have fallen or been cut down. He then collects it and brings it home to be divided and arranged.

Since last year, he has been stocking up, arranging it in every patch he can find in and around his home, including an outdoor space used by his wife, Rosvita. At 76, he worries he may not be able to keep enough of it cut and ready to keep their fireplace going and avoid using gas.

“I had to steal two flower beds from my wife,” he said. “And the third is up for debate.”

Bernward Schepers didn’t wait for the government to start urging citizens to stock up on non-perishable food and 20 liters of water per person. For months he stockpiled supplies and diverted his heating and energy from fossil fuels.

“Thank God I bought a wood stove years ago,” he said. In the past year, he acquired an electric heater and a large battery with portable solar panels that can be deployed to generate power.

More and more Germans were attracted to solar energy in 2022. The amount of electricity generated by solar panels increased by a third in the first part of the year, amid fears of potential blackouts.

“If we lose electricity, this way at least we can power some of the little things and keep the food in the fridge from spoiling,” he said. “I also bought a small stove with a gas cylinder so we can cook if we need to.”

When he first talked about preparing for the worst, Mr Schepers’ son, Bastian Schepers, rolled his eyes. For a while his family mocked his preparations. No longer.

He also shares his knowledge with colleagues and friends who turn to him for advice.

“You just have to make sure you always have your food supply, that you have enough in there,” Mr Schepers said. “Then you’re good, no matter what.”

It was the first Covid lockdown that sent the Arndt family into preparation mode. “It started with toilet paper,” said Lars Arndt, who lives at home with his parents, brother and grandfather in Johannesburg, southeast of Frankfurt.

That’s when his mother, Claudia Arndt, decided they needed to turn their basement, where the family stored various things, including some perishable items like jam and canned vegetables, into storage. As Germany’s lockdown progressed in 2020 and 2021, the family began stockpiling more items, adding flour, pasta and a tank containing 100 liters of drinking water.

They also changed the way of heating the house. After years of relying on a gas furnace for central heating, this winter they went back to their primary wood stove, which heats only the dining room and living rooms on the main floor of the house. The remaining rooms are unheated.

“We thought more and more,” he said, “what can we do to make sure we can take care of ourselves.”

“We don’t want to be dependent on others for what we need,” he added. “But to be able to take matters into our own hands.”

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