Germany’s Russian gas crisis sparks run on coal

"A rush like this in the summertime, it's unheard of -- everybody wants coal," says Frithjof Engelke, a supplier of the briquettes which have become a hot commodity in the German capital.

Coal briquettes in Berlin
Brown coal briquettes are pictured in the storage of the "Hans Engelke Energie" heating products business in Berlin. Photo: Carsten Koall / AFP

A looming shortage of Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine war has reignited enthusiasm for this method of heating private homes despite its sooty residue and heavy carbon footprint.

Engelke, 46, head of the century-old Berlin business Hans Engelke Energie, says it’s brought a bonanza for his family business: “My holidays will have to wait.”

He and his team are frenziedly taking orders, organising deliveries by truck — now booked out until October, and getting supplies ready for those who come directly to pick up coal from his warehouse. 

On a hot summer’s day, he weighs and bags loose coal amid the dust and din of his filling machine, then arranges the bags on pallets, awaiting customers.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Germany’s alternatives to Russian gas?

In Berlin, 5-6,000 homes still heat with coal — only a fraction of the city’s 1.9 million homes, say municipal authorities.

Engelke’s customers are often elderly people, sometimes entirely dependent on coal and living in old dwellings that have never been renovated.

Others are lovers of the “cosy” heat emanating from often ornate old ceramic stoves.

But this year, new customers have arrived “en masse”, says Engelke, whose medium-sized company has also diversified into wood pellets and fuel oil.

“Those who heat with gas but who still have a stove at home now all want to have coal,” he said, citing a phenomenon seen throughout Germany as winter approaches.

‘Better than being cold’

Jean Blum is one of the new converts.

The 55-year-old man with tousled hair and a bushy white beard loads 25-kilogram (55-pound) bags filled with precious black briquettes in his trailer.

“I’m buying coal for the first time in years,” he tells AFP.

Since his home is equipped with gas heating, he sometimes lights his stove, but only with wood.

READ ALSO: Will Germany’s gas supplies last the winter?

Hans Engelke Energie Berlin

A worker loads briquettes of coal in the storage of of the storage of the “Hans Engelke Energie” heating products business in Berlin. Photo: Carsten Koall / AFP

With the jump in gas prices, which will be exacerbated this autumn when operators will be able to pass on the increase in energy levies to the consumer, Blum wants to make sure he has a safety net.

“Even if it’s bad for your health, it’s still better than being cold,” he says.

Although coal prices have soared 30 percent this season, it remains cheaper than wood, whose price has more than doubled.

“I worry when I wonder if there will be enough gas for everyone,” he adds, noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin has already partially closed the gas tap on Germany after Western nations imposed new sanctions on Moscow.


The black fuel is experiencing a comeback on several fronts in Europe’s top economy.

The German government had already resolved to increase the use of coal-fuelled power plants to satisfy the enormous appetites of several industries.

However Berlin insists it will keep its pledge to phase out the heavily polluting energy source by 2030 and rules out a “renaissance of fossil fuels, in particular coal,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently vowed.

However with new private customers coming out of the woodwork, production has a hard time keeping up, and many small coal merchants in the capital are running out of supplies.

“We produce at full capacity during the summer, with three shifts, seven days a week,” Thoralf Schirmer, spokesman for LEAG, a mining site in the Lusatia basin, told AFP.

Hans Engelke Energie Berlin

A worker fills bags of coal with a machine in the storage of the storage of the “Hans Engelke Energie” heating products business in Berlin. Photo: Carsten Koall / AFP

The company supplies DIY stores and fuel sellers with coal briquettes.

Production has jumped 40 percent since January, he said, but demand is strong everywhere and the situation is expected to remain tense at least until this winter.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much will Germany’s gas levy cost you?

Adding to the pressure is the fact that the other factory supplying the market in Germany, based in the Rhine valley, will cease production at the end of the year, reducing supply.

“I dread the winter a bit,” Engelke, the coal seller, admits.

Currently, people are relatively relaxed when they learn that they will have to wait at least two months before getting deliveries, he says.

“Things will be radically different when it starts to get cold outside.”

By Isabelle Le Page

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Norway and Germany seek Nato-led cooperation for key undersea structures

Germany and Norway want to start a NATO-led alliance to protect critical underwater infrastructure, their leaders said on Wednesday, weeks after explosions hit two key gas pipelines in the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

Norway and Germany seek Nato-led cooperation for key undersea structures

 “We are in the process of asking the NATO Secretary General to set up a coordination office for the protection of underwater infrastructure,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a press conference in Berlin.

“We take the protection of our critical infrastructure very seriously and nobody should believe that attacks will remain without consequences,” he said.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said the alliance would be “an informal initiative to exchange between civilian and also military actors” with NATO providing “a centre, a coordination point”.

Underwater cables and pipelines were “arteries of the modern economy” and it was necessary to create “a coordinated joint effort to ensure security for this infrastructure”, he said.

Scholz said he and Store would propose the plan to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who is due in Berlin for a security conference. The Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines off the Danish island of Bornholm were targeted by two huge explosions at the end of September.

The pipelines, which connect Russia to Germany, had been at the centre of geopolitical tensions as Moscow cut gas supplies to Europe in suspected
retaliation to Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

Although they were not in operation when the leaks occurred, they both still contained gas which spewed up through the water and into the atmosphere.

Russia and Western countries, particularly the United States, have traded bitter barbs over who is responsible for the blasts.

Several European countries have since taken steps to increase security around critical infrastructure. 

The G7 interior ministers warned earlier this month at a meeting in Germany that the Nord Stream explosions had highlighted “the need to better protect our critical infrastructure”.

Norway has become Europe’s main gas supplier in the wake of the war in Ukraine, taking the place of Russia.

The Scandinavian country has a vast network of pipelines, stretching for almost 9,000 kilometres, linking it to the continent, which experts have said are at risk of sabotage.