How can Ukraine get through winter with its power grid intact – expert interview

19 October 2022, 10:36 PM
Collage NV (Photo:State Emergency Service of Ukraine via REUTERS)

Collage NV (Photo:State Emergency Service of Ukraine via REUTERS)

The Ukrainian energy infrastructure is coping with Russian attacks which no other European country would have withstood. And if the Ukrainians save electricity and air defense systems work well, the country will be able to withstand the assault, director of the Energy Research Center, Oleksandr Kharchenko, told NV.

NV: What is happening with the energy sector in Ukraine?

Kharchenko: There are massive attacks by the Russian forces on the critical energy infrastructure in Ukraine. The attacks have been happening since the beginning of the war, but in the last two weeks they have become particularly massive. According to my assessments, the energy system of any other European country would not have been able to withstand the level of attacks that we are currently coping with.

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Ukraine has a very resilient energy system, as well as very competent technicians. And the fact that we are used to surviving in extreme conditions, and people remember the difficulties of the 1990s: the lack of fuel and poor preparation of heating seasons. Since 2017, the de facto national energy grid operator Ukrenergo has been preparing to merge our grid with the European one, upgrading the network further increasing its stability.

NV: What were the upgrades?

Kharchenko: Old equipment was replaced, power lines were refurbished, new ones were built.

Let me try to explain what is happening from a technical point of view, but in simple terms. In order to provide the consumer with electricity, two processes are required. One is to produce electricity, the other is to transport and distribute electricity. Currently the attacks are mainly targeting the transportation system, which consists of two types of objects. First are the power lines of different levels, and the second type are transformer substations – network nodes, essentially. For the most part, the nodes are transformer substations – lowering the voltage of incoming electrical power and distributing it to consumers.

Current, massive and very well-planned attacks are targeting these very network nodes. I’m sure that on the part of the Russians these attacks are clearly planned with the help of their engineers. They also attack thermal power plants in large cities, such as Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv.

Combined heat and power (CHP) station is a facility that generates electricity and heat at the same time: heat for the winter season, and electricity to supply urban consumers. Therefore, these attacks on transformer substations are very targeted and painful. They are dangerous because transportation routes are disprupted, the ability to transport electricity to consumers is gone. We still have enough power generation – there’s still enough coal, nuclear and hydro generation capacity. But the transportation system is being knocked out step by step, and that’s a problem.

When there is an attack and some part of the country is left without electricity, usually the electricity comes back within an hour. What is happening during that time? The power lines are being switched to backup ones.

If some simple piece equipment is damaged, then this can be restored quite quickly. All the stockpiled gear available is used and everything that is possible to fix is fixed within 3-4 weeks. But there is still a category of very complex, expensive and special equipment – like the transformers. Sometimes it takes up to six months to manufacture them.

NV: CHP-5 in Kharkiv, and later CHP-6 Kyiv were attacked and black smoke appeared there. Why did that happen?

Kharchenko: That’s the oil in the transformers burning. It is now one of the scarcest commodities in Ukraine. The city of Mykolaiv alone needs about 120 tons of technical oil, and without it, sometimes even barely damaged transformers cannot be repaired. They need to be refilled. When the transformer is knocked out, this means that plant cannot supply electricity to the grid. Basically, it doesn’t exist. If these transformers are destroyed, it will take a long time to build new ones. It’s not something that can be manufactured beforehand and plugged in where needed. It takes a separate project, developed for a couple of months – complex technological work that cannot be done quickly. This is what lowers the stability of the Ukrainian power grid. This is the kind of damage that degrades its resilience.

Why are Ukrainians being asked to reduce electricity consumption during peak hours? Because all those temporary solutions can’t hold under full load. And when engineers see the network cannot cope, they are forced to make emergency shutdowns. These temporary blackouts take entire sections of the grid offline, reducing the load and preventing the whole system from collapsing. If people save a little electricity, there is a chance the grid will hold after all.

NV: If all the transformers are down, then we cannot satisfy electricity demand for major cities?

Kharchenko: The problem is how to transport it. We have more than enough power generation. For example, even if all the thermal power plants operational in Kyiv, it is still necessary to supply additional power to the capital.

And when all key substations near Kyiv are hit, they are physically knocked out. Bypasses and backup cannot withstand the load. That's when shutdowns begin in Kyiv, sector-by-sector.

The apocalypse is canceled: Alexander Kharchenko, director of the Center for Energy Research, is confident that Ukrainian energy systems will survive (Фото: DR)
The apocalypse is canceled: Alexander Kharchenko, director of the Center for Energy Research, is confident that Ukrainian energy systems will survive / Photo: DR

NV: I heard that Japan will help us with transformers. Where can we get the necessary equipment?

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Kharchenko: There are active negotiations ongoing, not just with Japan. Many countries, such as Denmark, Norway, Germany, the UK help a lot. They give generators that are needed for repair work, they give equipment that’s available on short notice. But it's all relatively simple equipment. Complex grid elements are custom-made. And we are talking about infrastructure objects, each of which costs anywhere between $5-40 million. Therefore, donor support is very important. And many countries are helping, promising to increase their assistance. This is the main thing we need to be able to withstand new waves of Russian attacks.

NV: What are the worst- and best-case scenarios?

Kharchenko: The worst-case scenario is Russia managing to splinter our power grid into isolated chunks. But I think that we will be able to resist these efforts; this will definitely not come to pass.

Not because they don't want to, but because they can't. Moscow simply doesn’t have enough missiles. We have many such key nodes (transformers) – crossing into four-digit territory. It's hard to do. And in conditions when we have a lot of spare parts and basic equipment, we will be able to restore them faster than the Russia destroy them.

NV: Let's talk about the optimistic scenario.

Kharchenko: This is the current situation. Right now, we are following a positive scenario: we keep the pace of repairs, we have enough time to recover. If people really get behind saving electricity, helping power engineers by consuming less – then I am sure the scenario will be optimistic.

NV: Russian propagandists say that it is necessary to knock out our high-voltage power lines.

Kharchenko: They already knocked those out, and we immediately restored them. First of all – good luck accurately striking transmission pylons. Second – they are much easier to repair than transformers.

NV: Are Russians trying to hit the thermal power plant in such a way that we will lose central heating?

Kharchenko: Yes, and this is another major risk. If sewers and water pipes are frozen, it’s impossible to survive in a big city.

NV:  For example, in Kharkiv, the first thermal power plant was damaged back in August.

Kharchenko: They have CHPP-5 and CHPP-4 there. It’s tough in Kharkiv, but still possible to keep living there. In Mykolaiv it is even more difficult, but you can also survive there. I fear the most: if we liberate Mariupol before next spring, it’s unclear how anyone could survive in the city during the winter. People would have to be evacuated from many of the settlements liberated, because they will not survive the winter there.

NV: What can the West do to protect us from Russian strikes on thermal plants?

Kharchenko: They can help only by providing additional air defense systems. But there is a certain set of actions that should be taken in order to mitigate a given CHP facility being knocked offline for some time: supplying power to “socially important facilities,” like hospitals, schools, and kindergartens. Those are to be heated with a set of powerful diesel generators and boilers. That’s a contingency plan we can put in place for the coming winter, turning some of these buildings into survival strongholds.

NV: The Russians are bringing compact diesel boilers to Mariupol that will heat residential towers. Maybe we need something similar?

Kharchenko: It is necessary to have an array of heat generators and mobile generators, ready to supply key buildings. But even for 100,000 people, you simply can’t support that many generators logistically, as they require fuel. They also cannot work continuously for three months, being designed to work for 60-80 hours between maintenance sessions. These are mostly emergency devices that are almost never intended for continuous long-term operation.

NV: Do you have a prediction on how we’ll fare this heating season then?

Kharchenko: It’s now all up to the people manning our air defenses. I believe in them.

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