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Ukraine’s energy grid is teetering on the brink of collapse

As temperatures plunge and Russia attacks, Kyiv is fighting to keep the lights on.

By Samir Jeraj

Last month, for the first time since the Russian invasion, Ukraine was plunged into an uncontrolled “technical blackout”. While engineers pieced the energy grid back together the capital, Kyiv, where temperatures are around 5°C and predicted to drop further in the coming weeks, lost power for 48 hours. This was a stark example of how even cities far from the front lines no longer have a reliable electricity supply.

Indeed, energy has become a key front in the war. As Russian troops dig in for the winter they have launched wave after wave of missiles and drones to attack the weak points in Ukraine’s power stations and its electricity grid.

Demchenkov Yaroslav, a Ukrainian energy minister, told Spotlight via email that the situation was “quite difficult”, attributing it to Russia’s “mass targeting” of energy infrastructure over the past two months. On 23 November, for instance, seventy missiles were launched against energy-related targets. Ukraine’s four nuclear power stations, which provide around half of the country’s power, were simultaneously shut down for the first time amid concerns about nuclear safety.

These attacks serve several purposes: to inflict damage on the Ukrainian people; to starve the Ukrainian army of resources; and to allow time for Russia to build up its own forces for an offensive in the new year.

“In the last six weeks, we’ve got already the third missile strike on the energy facilities, before we had just one,” said Mykola Vavryshchuk, deputy mayor of Khmelnytskyy in western Ukraine. Vavryshchuk is also trying to keep the power on. The energy facility near the town provides about a third of the power for the whole region normally; at present it can only meet around 85 per cent of its capacity.

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Each Russian attack makes it harder to repair the facilities. In the meantime the local government has advised people to conserve energy. Local authorities have also taken electric-powered trolley buses out of commission and scheduled blackouts in between attacks. “About eight hours a day, every single day you don’t have electricity,” Vavryshchuk said. Right now, with these measures, there is enough electricity to ensure the water supply and sewage system in the city can continue to work.

While Ukraine generates most of its energy from gas and nuclear, renewables were a growing part of the country’s energy mix before the invasion – and they too have been hit hard. A high proportion of Ukraine’s wind and solar farms were in the south and east, now a warzone, explained Anton Antonenko, vice-president of the DiXi Group think tank in Ukraine. The Energy Ministry estimates that 90 per cent of wind farms and 40 to 50 per cent of solar farms have been damaged or are in areas under Russian occupation.

Domestic-installed renewables have, however, been able to provide some basic power to, for example, charge phones, in towns that were cut off from the grid, Antonenko said. Small portable solar panels are also being used by soldiers to charge their devices, allowing them to operate for longer periods of time in the field.

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Antonenko’s organisation is looking at putting renewables to work on ensuring other critical infrastructure can continue to function. “We have had a number of discussions with representatives of local communities and cities, some of them at the front line,” he explained. The aim is to use renewables to power the pumps that ensure critical infrastructure, such as water facilities, continue to function through an attack on the power grid.

As Ukrainians gather into “invincibility shelters” – spaces set up by the government to provide heat, water and electricity – local leaders are also looking to renewables as a second source of power. “They [local communities] are looking at ways to function autonomously,” Antonenko said. This possibility has not gone unnoticed by Russian forces, who have both damaged and taken solar panels in occupied areas, he added.

The US is expected to announce aid in the form of transformers and other equipment to keep Ukraine’s infrastructure going. A European energy industry group is coordinating the donation of parts and equipment. The pace of this specific technical support, however, has lagged considerably behind the amount of damage being done. It will not prevent the grid being destroyed in another attack either – only more anti-missile systems will do that. “The need is enormous as of yesterday, not even of today,” Antonenko said.

Artem Semenyshyn, CEO of the Solar Energy Association of Ukraine, says: “Solar is much more reliable than conventional, more traditional energy systems in terms of resistance to attacks.” Panels and inverters can be replaced easily compared with the components in power stations, he explained. Similarly, distributed energy grids mean communities are less vulnerable to attacks on transmission lines. In April, Semenyshyn says, a city of 30,000 people was cut off from the national grid but was able to partially function using local solar energy.

Semenyshyn’s organisation has installed solar panels, funded by international donations, on hospitals to ensure that they can continue to treat patients through the regular blackouts. Most hospitals rely on generators, which require petrol and are not designed for constant regular use, he explained. His organisation is now looking at installing battery storage to keep energy until it is most needed.

Looking ahead, Semenyshyn is keen to emphasise the role that renewables could play in post-war reconstruction and rebuilding an energy system that is more resilient to conflict, as well as climate change. Demchenkov is resolute that after the war, Ukraine will be raising its targets for renewable energy.

Back in Khmelnytskyy, the municipality has bought generators, and they have even been sent from “sister cities” in Poland and Lithuania by way of support. However, there is a shortage of generators across Ukraine and in the town, for example, many of the mobile phone towers do not have generators, which limits communications. “It’s not enough. Still it’s not enough,” Vavryshchuk said.

Nataliya Shpek-Whitby provided translation for this article.

[See also: Leader: The year of living dangerously]

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