Germany’s energy crisis is a cue for chopping wood and stocking up
Tightly stacked cords of wood line the side of a couple’s home in southern Germany, while another family further north lines their basement with shelves full of pasta, rice, cooking oil and cans of chickpeas, lentils and tomatoes.
In central Germany, a man who could not rely on the state for a long time made sure that he got by for weeks without electricity and heating; He’s stocked his attic with coolers for groceries, along with a camp stove, gas canisters, and solar panels to turn on the lights and stay connected online. Others brave the cool waters of a local lake for a daily dip and forego a hot shower at home.
In Europe’s largest economy, people are stockpiling and destocking. Even as authorities publish lists of essential items to prepare for power outages or natural gas rationing, many Germans are taking matters into their own hands to keep their homes warm and food on the table throughout the winter.
A majority of Germans, a whopping 60 percent, trust their government, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But with a seemingly never-ending barrage of Russian-launched missiles falling on Ukraine, helping to drive up energy and food prices at home, many Germans have decided they could be on their own at worst. You want to be prepared.
Leo Bäumler spends his afternoons splitting logs from trees he fells in his sister’s forest near where he lives near Weiden in southern Bavaria. He stacks them in his woodshed until he feeds them into the stove in the kitchen of the low house he grew up in.
While thousands of people across Germany have reopened sealed fireplaces and installed wood-burning stoves to avoid burning natural gas, which has doubled over the past year, Mr. Bäumler is heating his rooms, boiling water for his morning coffee, and using it to bake pizza in his wood-burning stove as usual .
Years ago, he recalls, his father refused to install gas central heating when the first pipelines reached his homeland, connecting Siberian gas fields to what was then West Germany via the Iron Curtain. For decades, natural gas from Russia was plentiful and cheap. Half of households in Germany heat with gas.
Even before the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February, Russian gas flows began to dwindle, causing the wholesale price to more than double. But the German leadership, citing reliable supplies since Soviet times, refused to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin would withdraw gas from Europe in retaliation for the European Union’s support for Ukraine. But many Germans, whose bills began to skyrocket as early as late 2021, began to prepare.
When Russia made the first cut in gas supplies in late spring, the government began to spread the idea that Germans could face rationing next winter. That sent many people to the heating supply store to buy wood stoves, and since then the price of wood cord and wood pellets has increased by more than 87 percent compared to 2021.
But Herr Bäumler didn’t notice.
“Since I live in the middle of the forest in eastern Bavaria, surrounded by trees,” he says, “I don’t have to worry about running out of wood.”
The Ice Bather
While some Germans are preparing for an eventual power outage or gas stop, others are focusing on ways to save energy. The country’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, became the butt of jokes over the summer when he encouraged Germans to take shorter, cooler showers.
Gregor Ranz and his friends didn’t need the encouragement. Every morning between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. they meet to swim skinny in a lake in Wedemark, north of Hanover. Long before the energy crisis, they have been cultivating their morning ritual – even when the temperature is below zero.
Although the gathering is also social, Mr. Ranz said it made more sense once the energy crisis hit. Every morning, skinny dipping – which is common in much of Germany – served to push the cold shower approach to extremes.
“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. A washcloth works well.”
Bernd Sebastian has relied on a 25-year-old gas stove to power the boiler that provides hot water and heating for his home. When the price of gas started to rise, he upgraded his heating but also plugged in 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 boiler and the heater draws from it,” he said. When the fireplace is off, the gas stove starts up.
He said he’s considering getting a heat pump, which extracts heat from the air. “That would be ideal, but it runs on electricity and with electricity prices going up, I wouldn’t save any money unless I install solar panels, which is an additional expense.”
Mr. Sebastian collects wood from a nearby forest managed by a friend who alerts him when trees have been felled or felled. Then he collects it and brings it home to divide and stack.
For the last year he has been stocking up and piling them in every spot he can find in and around his home, including some outdoor spaces used by his wife Roswitha. At 76, he worries he might not be able to keep enough of it chopped and ready to keep her fireplace burning and avoiding gas consumption.
“I had to steal two flower beds from my wife,” he said. “And the third is up for discussion.”
leaving the grid
Bernward Schepers didn’t wait for the government to start asking citizens to stock up on non-perishable food and 20 liters of water per person. For months he’s been stockpiling supplies and phasing his heating and electricity away from fossil fuels.
“Thank God I bought a wood stove years ago,” he said. Over the past year he has acquired an electric heater and a large battery with portable solar panels that fold out to generate energy.
In 2022, more and more Germans were drawn to solar energy. The amount of electricity generated from solar panels increased by a third in the first half of the year amid fears of possible power outages.
“If we should lose power, that way we can at least 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 cartridge so we can cook when needed.”
When he first spoke of preparing for the worst, Herr Schepers’ son, Bastian Schepers, rolled his eyes. For a while, his family made fun of his preparations. No longer.
He has also shared his knowledge with colleagues and friends who have asked him for advice.
“You just have to make sure that you always have your food supplies in good shape, that you have enough there,” says Schepers. “Then you’re good, whatever happens.”
The stock pilers
It was the first Covid lockdowns that sent the Arndt family into preparation mode. “It started with toilet paper,” says Lars Arndt, who lives with his parents, brother and grandfather in Johannesberg, south-east of Frankfurt.
It was then that his mother, Claudia Arndt, decided that they needed to convert their basement, where the family had stored a variety of things, including some non-perishable items like jam and canned vegetables, into a storage unit. As lockdowns in Germany progressed in 2020 and 2021, the family began hoarding more items, adding flour, pasta and a tank with 100 liters of drinking water.
They have also changed the way they heat the house. After years of relying on a gas stove for central heating, this winter they returned to their main wood stove, which only heats the downstairs dining and living rooms of the house. The other rooms are unheated.
“We’ve been thinking more and more,” he said, “of what we can do to make sure we’re able to take care of ourselves.”
“We don’t want to depend on others for what we need,” he added. “But to be able to take matters into your own hands.”