Weekend read: Energy on the front line


From pv magazine 12/2022.

Ukrainians are no strangers to air raid sirens, which have been going off regularly since Feb. 24, when the first Russian troops crossed the border. Olga Sukhopara, development director of the Ukrainian Association of Renewable Energy (UARE), tells pv magazine that after more than eight months of shelling, residents have become largely accustomed to life between air raid alerts.

However, since Oct. 10 – a day that marked a pivot in Russia’s strategy – air raid sirens have started entailing blackouts, at first lasting several hours and becoming longer with each new strike through Ukraine’s defenses.

“Damage to the energy infrastructure significantly affected the life and work of Ukrainians,” says Sukhopara. “In hours without electricity, life in cities halts.”

She says Kyiv residents now must spend five to six hours every day without electricity, with each day planned per the outages schedule.

“It is very difficult to buy household energy storage devices and the demand for diesel and gasoline generators has increased many times,” says Sukhopara. “The population is stocking up on batteries, power banks, candles, gas burners, warm blankets, and other things – they are preparing for the cold in their homes in winter.”

As of early November, when the last official assessment was made public, around 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure had been damaged. As things are developing quickly, this figure is changing day to day, particularly in light of Russia’s extensive bombardment of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on Nov. 15. In the wake of mass destruction, Ukraine’s power authority, Ukrenergo, is struggling against emergency blackouts. The main goal of Russian attacks is to destroy the critical civilian infrastructure of Ukraine, its distribution facilities, and eventually to freeze Ukrainians, according to a spokeswoman for Kyiv-based thinktank DiXi Group.

“According to the enemy’s calculations, systemic damage to critical infrastructure should also lead to a decrease in the stability of the country’s defense, create problems with logistics, the supply of weapons, fuel to the front, and the maneuvering of reserves,” DiXi Group tells pv magazine. The spokeswoman adds that the most important goal is “to bring cold and darkness to the homes of Ukrainians, which would, allegedly, put pressure on the government for negotiations with Russia.”

According to top Ukrainian government officials, the Russian strategy of weaponizing energy supply has a clear rationale: to force Ukrainians to return to the negotiating table and put the conflict on hold. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Nov. 7 that the country is unwilling to negotiate until certain conditions are met, one of which is the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He said “freezing the conflict with the Russian Federation means a pause that gives the Russian Federation a break for rest.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, agrees that a pause in the fight would benefit Russian forces, which could use the opportunity to bolster faltering defenses after a series of setbacks on the front.

“A ceasefire would provide the Kremlin with the pause it desperately needs to reconstitute Russian forces,” it said.

The DiXi Group spokeswoman adds that the end game of Russia's strategy is simple and unchanging. She says they aim to conquer and destroy Ukraine. “We understand the winter will be hard, but we also are convinced we will persevere,” she says.

Race against time

Ukrenergo describes Russian attacks on the energy industry as methodical and well planned. In fact, it is so well-orchestrated that engineers are confident colleagues on the other side of the front line – civil specialists probably familiar with Ukraine’s grid network since Soviet times – have been involved.

In addition to generation capacity, the Russians are said to target transmission networks and critical nodes: the parts of the system hardest to repair quickly. “In recent attacks on energy infrastructure, many distribution networks have been destroyed, not the generating capacity itself,” Sukhopara says. “Power outages in the country do not occur due to a capacity shortage but due to the impossibility of delivering electricity to the consumer in the required volumes.”

Dmytro Sakharuk, chief executive of Ukrainian private energy company DTEK, says the main goal of the new Russian tactic “is to destroy the integrity of the power system, creating isolated territories throughout Ukraine that receive electricity from available sources. If there are none, the territories remain completely offline.”

Kyiv could become one of those islands and Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko has warned residents should be prepared to leave the capital if there is a total loss of power. Sakharuk says Russian attacks are brutal, with a series of missiles fired at one facility at the same time, sometimes several times in a row. This results in total destruction.

“Part of the facilities have been completely destroyed and it is impossible to restore them; the other part shall be repaired with the production of necessary equipment, requiring significant material and time resources,” Ryabchun says. “Attacks are also carried out in cyberspace, on office systems for working with clients, with the market, and settlements.”

Ukrenergo is struggling to repair electricity networks as fast as Russia is destroying them. Engineers lack time and equipment, and each new wave of missile strikes that destroys capacity takes days or weeks to repair. In some parts of the country, catastrophic damage has occurred. In Lviv, it could take eight to 12 months to repair damaged infrastructure, says Maxim Kozitsky, the head of the regional military administration.

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Equipment donations are urgently needed, stresses DiXi Group. Western companies are donating transformers, circuit breakers, switches, generators, cables, and other gear, with Poland’s PGE and Tauron, Germany’s E.ON and 50 Hertz, and French company Schneider Electric among the donors, along with businesses in Finland, Lithuania, Portugal, and the United States.

“However, compared with what Russia has destroyed in its latest wave of missile strikes, it is woefully inadequate,” says the DiXi Group representative.

The attacks are also erasing the financial stability of Ukraine’s energy industry.

“Due to constant attacks on the infrastructure, Ukrenergo is forced to finance the repair of grids from the TSO [electricity transmission system operator] transmission tariff, that is, part of the funds from the tariff for payments to RES [renewable energy sources] goes to repair grids,” says the UARE's Sukhopara.

She adds that the level of renewables payments improved in autumn due to seasonal generation. From March to May, renewables payments were at the level of 20%, in October they reached almost 80%.

PV’s struggle

Ukraine’s renewables industry is eager to help overcome the energy crisis but there is little it can do right now. Ukrainian solar plants see their power generation fall during winter months and the clean power sector has experienced significant destruction during almost nine months of shelling.

In October, Ukraine energy minister Herman Halushchenko said around 40% to 50% of the nation’s solar sites – and 90% of wind farms – were unavailable due to damage or occupation. Some big solar plants are in Russian-controlled territory. Sukhopara says members of the UARE, who wish to remain anonymous, have revealed solar stations in occupied territory have been looted. “Some have almost no equipment left, and others will continue to be dismantled and exported to Russia,” she says.

The defense ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence reported on Nov. 3 that in the occupied areas of the Kherson region, since Oct. 27, Russia had launched a “revision of solar electricity generation facilities.”

“If the owners of the property do not show up within the set time to prove their ownership, or they are in the territory under the control of the Ukrainian authorities and refuse to return to the temporarily occupied territory, the property will be “nationalized,” which means stolen, and transferred to the fake company ‘GUP Khersonoblenergo’ created by the occupiers,” says Sukhopara, adding, the eventual goal is to remove seized property to Russian territory.

Some solar plants in Russian-occupied territory appear to have been luckier than others. Oleksandr Selyshchev, chief executive of DTEK’s renewables business unit, tells pv magazine that at the beginning of October, the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated the village of Tryfonivka, in the Kherson region, the location of DTEK Renewables’ 10 MW Tryfonivka Solar Farm (SF).

“This is the first facility of DTEK Renewables over which the company has been able to regain control, after the temporary loss of control due to the full-scale Russian invasion into Ukraine,” Selyshchev says, adding, Tryfonivska SF had ceased working since the occupation, when regional power lines were damaged. “According to preliminary estimates, about 10% of solar panels were damaged by military operations,” Selyshchev says.

DTEK is waiting for permission from military and law enforcement agencies to return to the solar farm and assess condition and damages. “DTEK Renewables plans to repair Tryfonivska SF and to start generating electricity into the power system at the first opportunity, which is important for the country in terms of the energy crisis and winter,” Selyshchev says.

Repeated attacks on energy infrastructure appear to have failed to shatter Ukrainian confidence after a decisive victory in Kherson. Energy companies and government officials discuss a post-war Ukrainian future featuring 100% clean energy, using nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar. DTEK is promoting the idea of new generation capacity in Ukraine, to deliver 30 GW of green energy by 2030.

However, to make this a reality, Ukrainians still must drive the Russians out of their country. Everybody understands that without peace, all talks pertaining to future development remain futile. And yet the development talk goes on, reflecting the apparent optimism of Ukrainians.

“The expectations of Ukrainians, regarding the end of the war, are unchanged; the majority are confident in our victory provided that Ukraine receives the necessary support from foreign partners, and sanctions against Russia and its allies are strengthened,” says the UARE’s Sukhopara.

This copy was amended on 17/01/22 to remove the name of the spokeswoman for DiXi Group quoted.

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