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

Neatly stacked cords of wood line the side of a couple’s home in southern Germany, while another family further north has lined their basement with shelves stacked with pasta, rice, cooking oil and cans of chickpeas, lentils and tomatoes.

In central Germany, a man long wary of trusting the government has made sure he can go weeks without electricity or heat; he filled his attic with coolers to hold food, along with a camping stove, gas canisters and solar-powered equipment to keep the lights on and stay connected online. Others brave the cold waters of a local lake for a daily swim, forgoing a hot shower at home.

In Europe’s biggest economy, people are stocking up and downsizing. 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 ensure they have a warm home and food on the table during the winter.

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

Leo Bäumler spends his afternoons splitting tree trunks he cuts in a forest owned by his sister near his home near Weiden in the southern state of Bavaria. He stacks them on his firewood until he puts them on the stove in the kitchen of the low-rise house where he grew up.

While thousands of people across Germany have reopened closed fireplaces and installed wood-burning stoves to avoid burning natural gas, which has doubled in price over the past year, Mr. Bäumler heats his rooms, boils water for his morning coffee and cooks pizza on his wood stove as usual.

Years ago, he recalls, his father refused to install a gas central heating system, when the first gas pipelines arrived in his home region, connecting the gas fields of Siberia with what was then West Germany, in through the Iron Curtain. For decades, natural gas brought in from Russia was plentiful and cheap. Half of the houses in Germany use gas for heating.

Even before the Russian military invaded Ukraine in February, Russian gas flows had begun to decline, causing the wholesale price to more than double. But German leaders, citing reliable deliveries from Soviet times, refused to believe that President Vladimir V. Putin would deprive Europe of gas in retaliation for European Union support for Ukraine. Many Germans, however, whose bills were already starting to soar at the end of 2021, began to prepare.

When Russia made its first cut in gas deliveries in late spring, the government began to entertain the idea that Germans might have to face rationing in the winter. This sent many people to heating supply stores to buy wood stoves, and since then the price of wood cords and wood pellets has increased by more than 87 percent compared to 2021.

But Mr. Bäumler didn’t 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 an eventual blackout or gas shutdown, others are still focusing on ways to save energy. The country’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, became the subject of jokes over the summer when he encouraged Germans to take shorter, cooler showers.

Gregor Ranz and his friends needed no encouragement. Every morning, between 8 and 9, they meet for a swim in a lake in the Wedemark district, north of Hanover. They’ve been celebrating their morning ritual since long before the energy crisis, even when temperatures drop below freezing.

Although the gathering is also social, Mr. Ranz said once the energy crisis hit, it made more sense. Bathing naked – common in much of Germany – every morning served to take 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. A towel works well.”

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

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

He said he was thinking of getting a heat pump, which takes heat out of the air. “That would be ideal, but it runs on electricity and with energy prices going up, it wouldn’t save me any money unless I installed solar panels, which is another expense.”

Mr. Sebastià collects wood from a nearby forest that is managed by a friend who notifies him when trees have fallen or fallen. Then he picks it up and takes it home to divide and stack.

Since last year, he’s been stocking up, piling it on every patch he can find in and around the house, including an outdoor space used by his wife, Roswitha. At 76, he worries that he won’t be able to keep enough chopped and ready to keep his fireplace going and avoid using gas.

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

Bernward Schepers did not 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 has been collecting supplies and shifting his heating and energy 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 can be deployed to generate power.

More Germans attracted to solar power in 2022. The amount of power generated from solar panels increased by a third in the first part of the year, amid fears of possible blackouts .

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

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. Not anymore.

He has also been sharing his knowledge with colleagues and friends, who have come to him for advice.

“You just have to make sure that you always keep your food supplies up, that you have enough there,” said Mr. Schepers said. “So you’re fine no matter what.”

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

That’s when his mother, Claudia Arndt, decided 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 the lockdowns in Germany progressed in 2020 and 2021, the family began stockpiling more items, adding flour, pasta and a tank with 100 liters of drinking water.

They also changed the way the house was heated. After years of relying on a gas furnace for central heating, this winter they went back to their main wood stove that only heats the dining room and living rooms on the main floor of the house. The other rooms are not heated.

“We’ve been thinking more and more,” he said, about “what we can do to make sure we’re able to supply ourselves.”

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

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