PUTZBRUNN, Germany — Konrad Kötterl lights another cigarette, which seems risky in a barn full of firewood. This is not cheap wood, either. The price of the pallets Kötterl sells has doubled since last year. “It’s not even cheaper to heat with wood,” Kötterl says during our conversation. “But people are very anxious that there will be no gas in general.”
They are anxious because Germany is on the edge of winter, during an unprecedented European energy crisis. Russia’s war with Ukraine, Western sanctions against Moscow, the Kremlin’s cutoff of pipeline gas, and a cascade of other calamities, has made the cost of natural gas and other energy sources soar.
Germany, in particular, relied on Russian gas. The country got more than half of its imports from Russia in 2021; by this September, it got none. Germany responded by filling up its gas storage and seeking supply elsewhere, often at a premium. High prices have forced industry cutbacks and closures and municipalities are cutting back — lower temperatures in swimming pools, street lights turned off. Households are urged to use less energy, but many will nevertheless face huge jumps in their utility bills, even as the German government tries to offset the price surge for consumers and companies.
These measures, some painful, will help Germany withstand this winter, but the margin is narrow. In a country where around half of homes use gas for some portion of their energy, a very cold winter, or an unexpected disruption to gas supply or infrastructure, make the contours of this crisis unpredictable.
Firewood is one back-up plan in case the worst case happens. It is not the only alternative energy source people are seeking out, but it is illustrative of a broader dynamic: Europe is worried about shortages and extraordinarily high costs for this winter.
The age of cheaper gas is over in Europe, and the transition away from that is painful and unpredictable. This is a crisis without a close precedent, one that is unlikely to be contained to just this winter. The rush for firewood is bound up in this anxiety; less a solution to the energy disruptions than a symbol of it.
Kötterl has owned his one-man business, Brennholz München Palette, for about 10 years, and has never seen anything like this rush for firewood.
He started to see firewood demand tick up during the pandemic, when people were anxious and had to stay at home. Suppliers also can’t keep up: beetle infestations and other environmental damage have cut into wood supplies. Then came the war in Ukraine and disruptions to the supply chains, especially from Eastern Europe.
The impending energy crisis has strained supply even more intensely, and dramatically increased prices for the firewood — Brennholz, in German — that is available. People want more of it, and the high costs of energy and other products mean it is more expensive to cut it, dry it, package it, and transport it. Gerd Müller, of Germany’s Federal Association of Firewood Trade and Production, said the average price increase is about 30 to 40 percent at most dealers, or about 150 euros per bulk cubic meter. According to Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, in August 2022 the price of firewood and wood pellets rose 86 percent.
The cost of Kötterl’s large pallets of firewood — about 360 pieces of beech wood — has doubled this year, from about 200 to 400 euros, including delivery, to his customers in the Munich area. Demand is so high Kötterl stopped taking orders in July for the rest of 2022. Some are trying to line up deliveries for next winter, but Kötterl, who depends on a supplier from Croatia, can’t make those kinds of guarantees a year out. “Now they are simply afraid,” Kötterl says. “Very, very afraid.”
Kötterl is not the only seller experiencing this. Other farmers and wood suppliers near Munich have disclaimers splashed across their websites, some version of: please don’t call us, we’re sold out. Simon Tristl, a wood farmer in Ingelsberg, Bavaria, outside Munich, said his prices have gone up about 40 percent for one stere — about one cubic meter — of firewood. “Nein,” he says, without elaborating, when asked if he can keep up with demand.
Wood made up 9.9 percent of the total energy consumption for private households in 2020, based on data from Umweltbundesamt, the German Environment Agency, which includes households that may use wood to supplement other energy sources. Again, it’s an option that the energy crisis has made more necessary, to those who have it — or can find it.
When I visited Kötterl’s warehouse in early September, his phone kept ringing. In between answering calls, and lights of his cigarette, he described this very strange moment, using the German word “spannend” — exciting, he says, but a negative kind of exciting.
“Now it’s the first time that really something is dramatically changing, not in a good direction,” he says. “But at least it is changing, so we see what will happen.”
Pallets of firewood are lined up in Kötterl’s barn, neat rectangular piles held together by plywood. Kötterl gets his firewood delivered from a wood supplier operating about 600 kilometers away in Croatia. Once he gets these shipments, he delivers these pallets to customers in the Munich area, just a few at a time, all his small truck can handle.
He is, he joked at one point, the “sandwich man” — the middle man between the wood supplier and the customers now paying a premium for firewood. As the sandwich man, he sees the entire scope of the business, and how the inflation and energy crises are making everything more and more costly.
He is struggling to match the price changes from his manufacturer, which he says have gone up eight times this year. The wood is more expensive to process and package. His manufacturer puts firewood through drying chambers, the pallets placed inside and heated to a high temperature. That requires electricity, and the cost per kilowatt-hour has gone up. Big metal staples hold the pallets together. Those used to come from Ukraine, and cost about a penny for 10 to 15 pieces, he says. Now it’s about 50 cents for 10 pieces, because the staples are made locally. “It’s a mess,” Kötterl says. “It’s a mess.”
Jürgen Gaulke, of AGDW — Die Waldeigentümer, the German Forest Owners Association, says the average private owner in Germany only owns about 2.9 hectares of forest (about 7 acres), small operations that already have thin profit margins. These owners are now paying a lot more for gas and electricity, or struggling to get machinery to manage their farms and collect the wood.
Tristl, the wood farmer just outside of Munich, owns a small 12-hectare wood farm, but also purchases wood from government forests. That costs 10 to 20 percent more, he says — though he is lucky to have a permit for it, because those would be impossible to get now. His own labor is more expensive; he has to pay himself more, just to pay his own bills. It costs more for Tristl and Kötterl to buy fuel for their trucks so they can deliver the wood to their customers. “And the end users [are] paying everything,” Kötterl says.
This is the challenge of Germany’s energy crisis: it is crisis layered on top of crisis.
The pandemic, and then the war in Ukraine, scrambled labor and supply chains, forcing manufacturers to pay even more for replacements, or to cut back on the products they make, increasing costs globally. In Europe, and Germany especially, the Russian natural gas that powered industry is no longer flowing, so everything costs more to make and manufacture and sell. In Germany, the overall inflation rate is about 10 percent.
But energy, of course, looms largest. Energy prices in September rose more than 40 percent from the previous year. Business owners and residents I spoke to said they and their neighbors expect their energy bills to increase by hundreds of euros. A lot depends on the home, and how big or insulated it is. A lot depends on how people heat their homes, who their suppliers are, and how much those suppliers might increase their prices — but maybe as high as five times the usual price, experts said. The government recently scrapped a gas levy that would have added to the energy costs, and will instead introduce more programs to subsidize energy prices, but the contours of that initiative are still taking shape and it has frustrated other European countries who see Germany as acting along when the entire continent faces energy constraints.
Still, even with potential offsets, and cutbacks in consumption, this energy will be costly. And so, people search for alternatives, like firewood, or wood pellets, or even coal. Though prices for these sources have increased, if you can get it, Tristl says, firewood may still be cheaper compared to something like heating oil. And as costs rise, so does the anxiety.
Households and businesses in Germany are anxious that the cost of energy will exceed their financial reach, or that an unforeseen disruption could lead to rationing or blackouts. The German government has tried to ease these kinds of fears, but as Tristl said, people are still nervous they could go through the winter without gas or oil at times. “That’s why many customers have bought double the amount [of firewood] they usually buy, or reactivated their fireplaces in their homes,” Tristl said.
Müller, of the firewood association, said this panic is, in some ways, self-perpetuating. “They are trying to defuse the situation with wood-burning stoves,” he said. “Because the dealers can only just supply their regular customers, there is not enough wood to be found on the market.”
There is no easy way to bring that wood to market, either. Some countries, like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria, have put versions of export bans on wood to make sure domestic processors and supplies have raw materials. As Gaulke said, forest owners and wood farmers cannot expand production because wood farming is a “long-term business, not a short-term business” — once a tree goes down, even a replanted one will not replace it quickly. That scarcity has made farmers nervous, Gaulke added. Reports of wood theft in some forests have increased, and some of his farmers are installing GPS devices in their wood pallets, just in case. Kötterl installed security cameras in his warehouse.
And at this late stage in the season, it is increasingly difficult to find any wood to buy. Wolfgang Thölken, a 66-year-old from Bremen, in northern Germany, used to heat with wood a few times during the winter, but stopped because of environmental concerns. Now he wants to use it again — at least, to have a week or two’s wood supply, just in case. Sometimes, when he’s cycling, he sees wood farmers and asks if they have any to sell. Most people say they don’t. Once, he offered someone a bottle of wine if they could get him wood, but, so far, no success.
Ralf Weber, who runs Ketori Coffee in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin, heats exclusively with a wood-burning stove that uses Holzbriketts, blocks of wood particles that burn. To get through a season, he usually has to order 20 packs — about 200 kilos worth every two weeks. In late September, he said he needed to call soon for his delivery for the season; he only had about three days worth of supply. He knew when he called, the prices will have gone way up.
Because war, and inflation, and the energy crunch mean everyone is seeking a safety net.
Kötterl says all he gets are calls of people asking where is their wood. He can only do about 10 to 12 deliveries a day, just a few pallets at a time. On the day I visit his warehouse, he went out on a delivery, to a regular customer, who wanted three pallets.
Christoph Kaesbohrer meets Kötterl’s truck at his home in Trudering. He shows the firewood he already has carefully stacked above our heads in his backyard, that he will use, along with oil and solar panels, to heat the hot water that heats his home.
“What can I do?” he asks, when I ask if he is nervous about the energy crisis. “Nothing. And if you cannot do something, you must not be nervous.”
Translation and additional reporting by Jasper Riemann.