Ukraine's Battered Energy Sector Hopes For A Miracle In Time For Winter
The country is scrambling to shore up production and distribution amid the inevitability of continued Russian attacks, questions around the pace of restoration of damaged facilities, and the possibility of a harsher winter than last year's.
KYIV — Before Russia's invasion, the Ukrainian energy sector typically conducted annual maintenance and repairs between May and September. However, it is struggling to keep up in the aftermath of the significant damage inflicted on power generation and distribution facilities.
With a substantial number of these facilities either destroyed or damaged, a full recovery within six months is implausible. Predicting potential power outages is also challenging, as it depends on the scale of future Russian attacks. The only thing that can be predicted with a high degree of certainty is that these attacks will persist.
Furthermore, the Russian tactics have evolved, now involving the use of drones to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and target infrastructure. Ukraine is adapting to this threat and developing countermeasures, but citizens should nonetheless brace for the possible power disruptions.
Towards the end of summer, varying assessments emerged regarding the readiness of Ukraine's energy system for the winter. Some of them caused concern. For instance, Lana Zerkal, a former advisor to the Minister of Energy, revealed that only one third of the planned restoration of thermal power plants had been completed.
Kostiantyn Uschapovskyi, head of the National Commission for State Regulation of Energy and Utilities (NCRECP), added that restoration work on combined heat and power plants and thermal power plants had covered a mere 1.6% of the damage inflicted by the Russians.
"Unfortunately, the figures we have for emergency and recovery work completed by July 1 do not provide a positive outlook for the successful completion of the Winterization Plan," he said.
Subsequently, the government sought to reassure the Ukrainian population, with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal asserting that winter preparations were proceeding as planned and were in their final stages.
A high-ranking government source emphasized that most energy companies had effectively utilized the summer months to prepare for winter. They highlighted that Energoatom, the state-run nuclear power company, had intelligently prepared for the repair campaign, with seven nuclear units operating at full capacity and two more were undergoing repairs. All nine available units were slated to operate during the winter.
Only anti-aircraft defense will [increase our] chances of getting through the winter without problems.
Additionally, over 70% of heat generation facilities had undergone repairs. Dmytro Sakharuk, executive director of DTEK, the largest commercial energy operator in Ukraine, reported that his company had completed 19 of the 27 repairs to be carried out by the end of 2023.
However, the energy sector's challenges extend beyond power generation. Ensuring the transmission of electricity through high-voltage networks and its delivery to consumers via electricity distributor Oblenergo's networks is equally crucial. Andrii Gerus, head of the parliamentary committee on energy and housing and communal services, pointed out that in 2022, most outages were not due to a lack of electricity but rather network restrictions.
Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, chairman of the board of state-owned power system operator Ukrenergo, reassured that the company was prepared to handle winter electricity volumes. "Currently, there are no restrictions on the network or electricity production," he said.
To sum up, assessing the power system's readiness for winter remains challenging. The sector is focused on maintaining what Gerus called an adequate “margin of safety” in the event of further shelling, given that equipment production takes time. "The Russians understand this well, so we need the help of our European partners in this area," Gerus added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy chairs a meeting on preparing for winter conditions with members of the government during a visit to the frontlines on October 3, 2023 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
The inevitability of continued Russian attacks
The ongoing military threat remains a significant concern, with few doubting that Russian drone and missile attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure will continues. This was reaffirmed by the mass attack of September 21.
Chairman of the board of Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, stressed the critical role of the air defense system in ensuring stability within the energy sector. "We can endlessly restore objects, but only anti-aircraft defense will [increase our] chances of getting through the winter without problems," he said.
In addition to active air defense measures, Ukraine has also resorted to passive protection through engineering fortifications. While specific details remain confidential, this system offers two levels of protection: the first against shrapnel and the second against missile and drone strikes. It is understood that complete coverage of all facilities is impractical, and preparations for possible damage are necessary. Maintaining a stock of equipment for rapid repairs is vital, both for power generation and distribution.
Weather conditions are another crucial factor in winter preparedness "The previous winter was warm, nature was on our side. Now we are preparing for different weather conditions," Prime Minister Shmyhal has acknowledged.
Men sit at the tables by candles in a cafe as a blackout is in place in Odesa, southern Ukraine, after an accident at one of the substations in the region on February 4, 2023.
Will there be blackouts?
Experts have highlighted both positive and negative aspects of Ukraine's preparations for the autumn-winter season.
"Technically, we are in a much worse condition than a year ago,” said Oleksandr Kharchenko, director of the Energy Research Center. “But psychologically, we are in a better position.”
Despite all the difficulties, Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko said that in the absence of new attacks, Ukraine will be able to survive the winter without blackouts.
Kharchenko did not agree with this opinion. According to him, in its current state, the energy system is much more vulnerable than a year ago, and the reserves have decreased many times over.
"In cold weather, we will not go through the winter without blackouts, even if there are no attacks. If it’s minus 10-15 degrees for several days, planned blackouts with schedules will begin because there will not be enough power. Even with imports and emergency aid," Kharchenko noted.
We are entering this winter without a reserve.
Gonchar also warned about possible disconnections from the grid. "If the winter is warm, then Ukraine may have enough power. However, this does not mean that there will be no fan outages; we have to get used to this as a norm," he said.
"The winter will be difficult, blackouts will depend on what kind of attacks there will be and how air defense will work. In certain regions, there may be situations when there will be light for four hours and no light for the next four," Kharchenko predicted.
Former People's Deputy Viktoria Voytsytska pointed out that in 2022, it was possible to quickly restore energy supply thanks to the equipment stock.
"In March 2022, all the reserves were used, and we are entering this winter without a reserve,” she said. “We ordered dozens of transformers, and we are [currently] receiving them. The rest will arrive during the winter, but it is still not enough. We must be honest with the citizens and say that miracles [such as the restoration of energy supplies] are unlikely this year.”
"There will be difficulties, but there is every reason to believe that there will be no total blackouts,” Kharchenko concluded. “Under certain conditions, the situation is unlikely to be worse than last year.”
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