By Jane Han
In this day of new energy sources and high technology, holed briquettes, or ``yeontan,'' have been quickly fading into people's memories as a fuel of the past. But for the energy-poor households, the shortage of these coal blocks is emerging as a current worry ahead of winter.
The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy reported that local briquette consumption doubled over the past three years, pushed by high oil prices and the sluggish economy.
Households, restaurants, offices and even large greenhouses are beginning to turn back the clock, as more and more, again, rely on charcoal for heat.
But to their dismay, the price of the once-cheapest form of energy has risen steadily as supply is falling short of growing demand.
Last month, the ministry said the briquette supply was halved to below 4 million tons this year from around 8 million tons in 2004, all the while as demand continues to rise.
One of the reasons for the off-balance is a production cut in anthracite, falling from about 3.3 million tons in 2002 to less than to 2.8 million tons last year, with consumption during the same period jumping from 1.1 million tons to 2.3 million.
With production declining, the stronger demand has been chipping away at stocks _ up to a point where experts predict that the domestic coal supply will bottom out in about two to three years.
Hit hardest by the supply shortage, to no surprise, are those in the low-income brackets as additional price increases are planned for next month.
``From 400 won to 500 won, we'll soon see each block priced at 1,000 won. The government is really starting to corner some of the community's poorest people.'' said Jeong Sung-hoon of Yeontan Bank, a non-profit organization that provides briquettes for needy households.
The government has distributed briquettes at relatively low costs by supporting more than 50 percent of the price. Some 255.6 billion won was used for subsidies last year alone, but because of the soaring demand and financial burden, the government announced in May that the state's support will be phased out by 2011.
``Simply raising prices to curb the demand is a one-sided method that needs immediate correction,'' said Jeong, calling for the state to slow down their plans and think of alternative ways, such as importing anthracite, to handle the situation.
But government officials said using imports to make briquettes isn't so easy, as about 80 percent to 85 percent of domestic anthracite must be mixed with 15percent to 20 percent of imports to make the 19-holed briquettes most commonly used here.
``There aren't that many countries that produce anthracite to start with, so that method has its limits,'' said a ministry official, explaining that due measures will be taken to minimize the side effects of price hikes.
However, as government efforts don't seem enough, a growing number of community groups, similar to the Yeontan Bank, are beginning to collect briquettes to help energy-deprived households nationwide.
``An average family needs about 900 blocks of briquettes to get through the winter,'' said Jeong. ``But many won't have the sufficient amount to keep warm, so we're working with corporations and other charitable organizations to collect the stock our neighbors need.''
This is a matter to be taken seriously, he said, emphasizing that the shortage problem could lead to people freezing to death during winter.
Officials estimate that about 1.2 million families, or about 8 percent of the nation's total households, suffer from relatively high energy costs, including electricity and gas rates.
``Who wants to get up in the middle of the night and replace briquettes?'' said Jeong, emphasizing that no one wants to use the old fashioned heating method, but it's the slow economy that's making people look to the past.