How Ukraine Can Avoid Losing Its Electricity

Ukraine has been invaded because it tried to break from Russia’s orbit and lean westward. Its effort to join the western world was most visibly on display during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, also known as Maidan after Kyiv’s Independence Square, and even more so now as civilians take up homemade weapons to fight invaders from the East.

The escape from Russia took many different, but not necessarily heroic, forms in 2014. Ukraine has complied with the European Union’s Third Energy Package and de-monopolized its key Soviet era state-owned energy giants, including Naftogaz and Ukrenergo, the gas and electricity monopolies. The country has made steps towards a full E.U. membership. it has adopted E.U. privacy and data protection regulations. Visa-free entry to the E.U. was possible because of it. Its citizens. The country stopped buying Russian natural gas and instead bought it from Poland, Romanian, Hungary, Slovakia, and Hungary.
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Perhaps the least glamorous but no less critical, Ukraine has also been working hard to decouple its power sector, its electricity grid, from Russia’s grid so it can interconnect instead with Europe. While it’s easy to be too technical fast, Ukraine is actually struggling to overcome Russian power over its electricity.

Ukrainian electricity sectors, which include approximately 52% nuclear, 28% coal, 10% renewables and 8% natural gases, have been rocked by the invasion. According to Maxim Timchenko, CEO of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private sector power company, the country’s electricity grid was still stable after four days of Russian bombing. One of DTEK’s coal powered thermal plants is offline in occupied Luhansk, and Russian forces have seized the Kyiv hydroelectric plant and also apparently a hydroelectric plant in Nova Kakhovka. Russian troops have been surrounded Zaporizhzhia’s 6 gigawatt nuclear plant. However, Energoatom stated that it was online as of Monday. The majority of renewables (wind and solar) are currently offline. Distribution infrastructure has suffered some damage. However, the grid itself is operational, in spite of all these problems.

Mostly stable it may be, but a small, untold, and critically important result of the Russian invasion is that Ukraine’s power grid is now dangerously orphaned. Much like the country being left by the world to fight for its life alone, Ukraine’s electricity system is currently isolated and under attack, wedged between Russia and Europe.

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The grid, a holdover from Soviet days, has been connected to Russia’s power grid and systems since its construction. Russia was able to turn Ukraine and Moldova (among other ex-Soviet countries) literally off of Moscow. Now, as Anders Åslund detailed for the Atlantic Council, Russia controls Ukraine’s electricity sector because the smaller country can only import electricity from Russia or Belarus due to their grids being interconnected. Russia controls the technical elements of power, like the frequency of electricity.

Ukraine was hurt by Russia’s ongoing electrical connections. Since 2014, Ukraine has used electricity as a weapon in its war on the West. The U.S., a Russian hacker group, took control of an Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast grid control center. They used a Microsoft Word feature as a way to phish employees at electrical distribution companies. They shut down power in Kyiv, as well as a large part of western Ukraine. In 2016, another Russian cyberattack was launched on the grid. In 2016, another cyberattack on Ukraine’s grid was launched by Russia.

Both the U.S.A. and E.U. poured money and technical assistance into Ukraine from 2016 to bolster the country’s electrical resiliency and develop cybersecurity systems for the power grid. The programs are ongoing to the present. On December 2, 20,21, the Council of the E.U. approved €31 million for, among other things, cyber protection. In Ukraine, the U.S. Agency for International Development runs a $38million multiyear cyber aid program. These and other initiatives include cyber defense of critical infrastructure. Ukraine received far more technical and financial support than it had ever been able to absorb. The process of repairing the Ukrainian grid has been slow.

Ukraine took steps to break off the Russian grid after Maidan and link up with Europe. In 2017, Ukraine’s electricity grid operator, Ukrenergo, signed an integration agreement with the Europe’s collection of grid operators, the European Network of Transmission System Operators, known as ENTSO-E. This agreement set out a number of technical requirements that Ukraine must meet in order to prepare its electricity grid for integration with the European network. Ukraine has continued to adhere since then and is fully compliant. It was not accepted, but it is still a part of many other attempts to link with the West.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this an emergency. Not only will cybersecurity remain at issue as long as Ukraine’s electricity grid remains connected to Russia, but Ukraine may lose power at any minute.

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ENTSO E integration requires that Ukraine tests its ability to handle the actual switching over without destabilizing their grid. Otherwise, it could have negative effects on European networks. It could even cause them to crash. The Isolation Test (also known as the Isolation Test) is the real de-linking from Russia of Ukraine’s electricity system for just a few days. It will be interesting to see what happens. It was to take place on February 24, 2022. That’s the date Russia invaded. De-linking took place on schedule. Ukraine’s grid was disconnected from Russia and it survived in perfect working order, with no evidence of disturbances.

Supposed to be just a couple of days long, the Isolation Test has now left Ukraine’s grid stranded. Ukraine can’t connect with Europe, as ENTSO-E still hasn’t approved integration. Furthermore, Ukraine doesn’t want to reconnect with Russia. This is a country which continues to bomb its population. Ukraine has become an electricity island. If enough power plants get captured or bombed, Ukraine will be unable to import any additional electricity. This is to ensure that its houses, factories, and troops are powered. It is unclear whether Russia’s seizure of power plants is part of a plan to turn Ukraine’s lights off, but the risk is very real.

Ukraine’s actual linking up with Europe’s power network was planned for 2023. Tests and remaining technical requirements were to be completed in the remainder of 2022. Experts attribute the long period of six years between the 2017 integration agreement and signing to ENTSO-E members’ meticulous standards, as well to the hesitancy shown by individual European grid operators. Some were wary of cheaper Ukrainian electricity competing with their domestic generation, possibly to include Poland, although Ukraine’s power is costlier than some. Like NATO membership, others have been slow to move, with Spain and Italy amongst them. Complaints include that Ukraine’s overall power generation is low, that it does not invest adequately in its systems, and that the entire power sector is dominated by oligarchs. Another problem is excessively strict or prescriptive regulation. The Ukrainian government frequently interferes in the electricity market mechanism, including through price caps that are anticompetitive. Even more problematic was Russian destabilization which created potential vulnerabilities that European grid operators didn’t want to take on.

Now those threats have been realized, Ukraine should be allowed to link its grid to Europe’s as quickly as possible. It already meets the technical requirements of synchronization and ENTSO-E does not exclude it. It includes 42 grid operators in 35 countries, far broader than the European Union’s 27 member states. In fact, a small portion of Ukraine’s power system, Burshtyn Power Island that supplies 4% of Ukraine’s electricity in the far west of the country, has been integrated with Europe since 2003. Each member of ENTSO-E must agree to accept Ukraine.

CEO of Ukrainian electricity transmission system operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytski, wrote a letter to ENTSO-E on February 27 “urgently request[ing] the emergency synchronization of the Ukrainian power system” with the European grid. He stated that this was essential in order to preserve electricity supply for Ukraine as well as to protect the electric system.

The political will to help Ukraine is mounting hourly as Russia’s troops advance, tens of thousands of refugees flee, and bombs rain down in residential neighborhoods. On February 27, three days into Russia’s assault, E.U. Kadri SIMSON, energy commissioner, promised that he would try to secure Ukraine’s emergency integration with ENSO-E. The issue was brought up at the February 28 energy ministerial. However, no final decision has been made.

The struggle against Russian subjugation in Ukraine involves only a tiny amount of electricity. This is just one aspect of a larger war Ukraine shouldn’t have to wage. It is a crucial one and it depends on Europe, not Russia. Europe should support Ukraine in its defense of itself and include a way to keep Ukraine lit throughout the siege.


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