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Coal stoves and wood thieves: Europe braces for winter without Russian gas

BERLIN - Jörg Mertens knew the West’s standoff with Russia had sent energy prices soaring across Europe. But his August bills left him gobsmacked.

His energy tab had surged by 70 percent.

"I'm afraid," said the 60-year-old Munich man, his voice breaking. After rent, the increased costs - about $190 a month for electricity and heat, compared to $112 before - will leave him with $366 a month for food, medicines and transit during Germany's worst bout of inflation since the 1970s.

"I'll have to buy less food, said Mertens, who has a spinal disease and survives off a fixed early pension. "In winter, how will I pay the rent?"

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Across Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weaponization of natural gas exports - withholding shipments, the Europeans say, to punish the West for imposing sanctions on Russia - is battering consumers in some of the richest countries on earth. The nations that have been hit hardest - including Germany, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands - have seen ratepayers slapped with year-over-year surges as high as 210 percent, even as officials and analysts warn of the prospect of rationing and blackouts in winter.

In Britain, cash-strapped residents are abandoning pets while schools are warning that rising energy costs mean they can no longer afford new textbooks. In Poland, officials are weighing the distribution of anti-smog masks as Poles consider burning trash for heat in winter. In Germany, residents of old West Berlin are dusting off coal- and wood-burning ovens that once served as insurance against the Russians targeting energy supplies during the Cold War.

Several European countries are suffering scarcity and soaring prices for a fuel of last resort: firewood. Thieves, sensing opportunity, are stealing logs from truck beds; scammers are setting up fake websites, posing as wood sellers to con desperate consumers. Wood-burning ovens and furnaces in several countries have almost completely sold out.

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"Firewood is the new gold," said Franz Lüninghake, 62, a systems administrator in Bremen, Germany, who has a wood-burning furnace on back order. His estimated energy bill for the next year? $4,500 - up from $1,500 for the 12 months to May.

Norbert Skrobek, a Berlin chimney sweep - a licensed technician who dons a vintage uniform to inspect and consult on wood- and coal-burning furnaces - said he's seen a surge in demand as Berliners refurbish old heaters and install new ones. A stampede of locals buying portable heaters, he fears, could trigger dangerous carbon monoxide leaks if improperly installed or used.

"I'm convinced we're going to have to carry some people out horizontally this winter," he said.

European nations have been scrambling to reduce consumption, fill reserves and source replacements for Russian natural gas, all while pledging hundreds of billions of euros worth of financial aid to consumers and businesses. To stanch the economic bleeding, the German government is even moving to add hundreds of thousands of people to housing welfare rolls.

But those steps are unlikely to fully offset the far higher costs, leaving analysts warning of an increase in poverty, a devastated middle class, growing government debt and greater environmental harm.

Cuts in shipments of Russian natural gas, used to power electricity grids and heat homes in many parts of Europe, is the biggest factor driving prices higher. But that's been exacerbated by other setbacks, including scheduled shutdowns of French nuclear power plants to fix corrosion. French authorities have warned the public to prepare for the possibility of rolling blackouts later this year. To save energy, the Eiffel Tower - a towering lantern that ordinarily illuminates the City of Lights until 1 a.m. - is to be turned off by 11:45 p.m.

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From Naples to Nuremberg, Germany, consumers are opening their energy bills to sticker shock.

“Putin has played everything to the hilt. So every cut in Russian gas supplies has brought us price jumps,” Klaus Müller, head of Germany’s energy regulator, said. “That is the price of this war.”

Europeans were already funding a transition to renewable energy sources through taxes and tariffs on their power bills, paying more on average than their American counterparts. Now, that gap has widened. As winter approaches, the economic pain could test the continent's resolve on sanctions to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.

Soaring prices have become a key issue for European parties known for cozy relationships with Moscow, sowing doubt in inflation-weary countries over the wisdom of the sanctions. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's right-wing League party, part of a coalition favored to win national elections this month - suggested Italians were paying too high a price. The generally pro-Russian far right in Germany, meanwhile, is mobilizing a "winter of rage," calling on ratepayers to take the streets against crippling energy costs.

"Enemies of democracy are just waiting to abuse the crisis to spread doomsday fantasies, fear and uncertainty," German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the Rheinische Post last week. "It is irresponsible to fuel the fears of people who are being hit particularly hard by soaring prices."

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Ahead of an unpredictable winter, European consumers are growing desperate.

In Britain, a recent survey showed, nearly one in four people were planning to keep the heat off this winter. The country, unlike some European neighbors, isn't dependent on Russia for its natural gas - it makes up less than 4 percent of its supply. But its energy market has been upended by the high prices driven by shortages elsewhere. Domestic gas prices rose by 96 percent and electricity prices by 54 percent in the year to July.

Prime Minister Liz Truss, in her first major announcement as head of government, said last week that consumer energy bills would be frozen for two years. The typical household would pay no more than $2,885 a year, the government said, a savings of more than $1000 per year off commercial rates.

Ed Trewhitt, 55, owner of Brickyard Bakery in Guisborough, England, said it won't be enough to save his business. If energy prices stay this high, he said, he'll be forced to close next year. The cost to run his bread oven has doubled over the last year to $2,300 a month. That spike comes on top of Britain's soaring inflation, which is at a 40-year high.

"The energy prices are crippling, but it's everything. My flour costs alone have gone up by 80 percent in the last year," Trewhitt said. "It's just not sustainable."

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Germany, slouching toward recession, is ahead of schedule in filling up its gas reserves. But a bitterly cold winter could still cause hardship. If the government imposes rationing, officials say, they will put citizens before industry.

In the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg on a recent morning, 41-year-old scientist Vinzenz Schönfelder watched as Skrobek inspected his old white and gold furnace. Built in the 1880s and unused for decades, the wood-burning oven is Schönfelder’s fallback in the dire case that Germany runs out of heating gas this winter.

"That what scares us the most, that the power supply is no longer stable," he said.

It reminded him, he said, of growing up in East Germany, where citizens were more prepared for occasional blackouts. "The last time I experienced this [uncertainty] was as a child in the 80s."

He resents what he describes as Germans again being caught in the middle of what he sees as a struggle between Washington and Moscow.

The sanctions "haven't ended the war, and they haven't weakened Russia substantially," he said. "At the same time, they have really hurt Germany enormously."

Meanwhile, he said, “the Americans are watching on comfortably.”