Energy in the occupied regions of Ukraine: The Azov Ring, Zaporozhzhia NPP, subsidy problems

Over the past year, the front line in Ukraine has hardly shifted. Fierce fighting is taking place in the southern and eastern regions of the country. At the same time, the Russians are seriously engaged in integrating the occupied Ukrainian territories with their own.

In November 2023, Russia launched a programme to restore and modernise captured energy facilities in Ukraine’s occupied regions. The Russians are trying to combine Ukraine’s generation facilities with their own and close them into a so-called Azov Ring. According to a statement by Russian Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov, about 40 million euros were spent on the project in 2023.

In the coming years, the Russians have promised to invest a further 700 million euros.

The Azov Ring includes the energy systems of the occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhzhia regions, annexed Crimea, the Rostov region of the Russian Federation and the territory of Krasnodar.

First of all, the Kremlin is investing in the restoration of transmission networks, distribution networks and gas infrastructure facilities. From March 1, 2024, the occupied Ukrainian territories will be officially declared part of the Southern Military District.

In fact, the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) were already partially integrated into the Russian energy system back in 2017. Kherson and Zaporozhhia regions joined it in 2022. The Rostov region became the integrator for the republics, and Crimea for the regions.

At the moment, there are no electricity connections between the LPR, DPR and the Zaporozhzhia and Kherson regions. And this, according to the statement by Shulginov, is a serious problem for Russia. Russian power engineers are trying to implement compensatory measures and are designing a connection between the Donetsk and Zaporozhzhia energy systems.

The impact of Ukraine’s ENTSO-E integration

Until February 24, 2022, the Ukrainian energy system consisted of two independent sectors. The main sector covered the majority of power plants and other electric power facilities, synchronised with the systems of the Russian Federation, Moldova and Belarus and provided for the export and import of electricity from there and there.

The second sector—the so-called Burshtyn Energy Island—did not depend on the main sector and used the capacity of the Burshtyn thermal power plant and several smaller power plants. This made it possible to export electricity to Europe and supply part of the Lviv, Transcarpathian and Ivano-Frankivsk regions of Ukraine.

On March 16, 2022, Ukraine joined the European Union’s ENTSO-E energy system. The process of energy European integration began back in 2005. The final tests necessary to synchronise the systems were carried out at the beginning of the war. Now, Ukraine has a unified energy system throughout the country and while electrical connections with Belarus, Moldova and Russia have been severed, the system operates synchronously with Europe’s.

“When the territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhzhia and Kherson were captured, the Russians acquired all the objects of those subsystems of the United Energy System of Ukraine that were located on this territory. The facilities had their own dispatch control centres, united into subsystems,” says energy expert Gennady Ryabtsev.

The Russians only needed to ensure the autonomous operation of the subsystem. But power facilities located in the occupied territories are not able to operate autonomously; most of them were damaged during shelling, many are in disrepair.

What Russia took as war trophies

In 2022, Russia appropriated eight large Ukrainian power plants with a combined installed capacity of approximately 15 gigawatts (GW), which was about 35 per cent of the capacity of the entire Ukrainian electricity sector.

However, these “war trophies” were taken in varying conditions. And the operation of power facilities depends not only on the configuration of the front line and the physical condition of the stations, but also on the location of power lines and power substations.

The authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic have controlled the Zuevskaya and Starobeshevskaya thermal power plants (in the Donetsk region of Ukraine) since 2014. They have provided for the needs of the republic all these years. In 2020, the first major repairs in four decades were carried out at the facilities. In 2023, the Russian federal government allocated 20 million euros.

Myronivska thermal power plant in Donetsk region, commissioned in 1953, is old and in the pre-war years it operated in boiler room mode, producing heat rather than electricity. The authorities of the self-proclaimed DPR tried to restore it, but progress was stopped by missile attacks from Ukraine. The issue of launching the station is still being discussed at the federal level of the Russian Federation.

The occupiers also got the Severodonetsk thermal power plant, which, according to the Ukrainian state enterprise Energoatom, was almost completely destroyed in July 2022.

During Russia’s offensive in 2022, Myronivska and Uglegorsk thermal power plants (in the Luhansk region) were taken under Russian control. The technical condition of the Uglegorsk thermal power plant was poor even during the period of its control by Ukraine. In addition, during rocket attacks in the spring of 2022, some of the power units were damaged. The station was badly damaged, and the workforce fled. Initially, the Russians planned to restart the station by mid-2023, but never did: it has nowhere to supply electricity due to its power lines running into Ukraine.

The self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic did not have its own power plants until 2022. In the spring of 2022, the Luhansk thermal power plant in the city of Shchastya was captured. From 2017 to 2022, it supplied the part of the Luhansk region controlled by Ukraine, which for a time turned into an energy island. At that time, there was a severe crisis with electricity in the LPR, since it had no connection with the DPR energy system—transmission lines and substations remained in the territory controlled by Ukraine, and flows from Russia did not cover all the needs of the occupied territories due to the underdevelopment of the networks.

In May 2022, the plant was demined and part of the gas units were restarted. In the fall of 2023, the Russians launched coal blocks.

Things are much more complicated in the Zaporozhzhia and Kherson regions

Only ruins remained of the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station, and until the moment of destruction it produced a maximum of 140 MW. The associated Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant and Zaporozhzhia thermal power plant (which ceased operation) worked in conjunction with each other.

The nuclear power plant carried the main load, and thermal power plants and hydroelectric power plants covered the rest, also allowing for morning and evening peaks in electricity consumption.

At the same time, the volume of water in the Kakhovka reservoir was regulated, from where a pond, which cooled the nuclear power plant, was fed.

For some time, the nuclear power plant provided electricity to both Ukraine and the Russian-occupied part of the Zaporozhzhia region. But as hostilities intensified, shelling of nuclear power plants and the transfer of five nuclear power plant reactors to cold cooling mode, the regions needed backup energy sources (one of the power units produces thermal energy for the needs of Energodar).

At the station, due to problems with the cooling system, shelling and poor management, blackouts regularly occur.

On December 2, 2023, another blackout occurred. Then, according to Ukrainian media reports, thanks to the efforts of specialists, the connection between the nuclear power plant and the Ukrainian energy system was resumed—the operation of the 750 kV power transmission line was restores.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly stated the need to create a safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. In turn, the Kremlin is making efforts to continue dialogue with the IAEA in order to legalise its presence at the plant.

To use nuclear plant, the Russians, at a minimum, must push back the front line, ensuring that the station’s territory is inaccessible to cannon artillery. Next, it is necessary to unload Westinghouse nuclear fuel from the reactors, repair and modernise the station so that it can be connected to the Russian energy system.

From the moment of launch until February 2016, all six reactors of the nuclear power plant were supplied with nuclear fuel from Russia. Since 2016, four of the station’s six reactors have been running on fuel produced by Westinghouse, and American firm.

A dry storage facility for irradiated nuclear fuel, using US technology, has been established at the nuclear power plant site. The Russians are not familiar with it. Given the difficulties, the Putin government has allocated five years for development to solve the problems of re-equipping and modernising the station in accordance with Russian standards.

The occupied Ukrainian regions will remain energy-subsidised

Considering the deplorable nature of trophy generation, the Ukrainian regions occupied by the Russians will remain subsidised for many years to come.

According to a forecast by Rosenergoatom, which is responsible for providing electricity to the “new regions”, consumption in the winter heating period, taking into account the operating mode of the power systems of the self-proclaimed DPR, LPR, Zaporozhzhia and Kherson regions, will lead to the need to operate power grid facilities in the Krasnodar Territory-Crimea section with parametres close to maximum.

In addition, given the incompleteness of work on the preparation of heat supply systems, an increased load on distribution networks in the occupied Ukrainian regions is possible.

According to Gennady Ryabtsev, the Russians will supply the regions of Ukraine they occupied on a residual basis. There is barely enough energy for military facilities, infrastructure and the remnants of the population that did not flee due to the war. Manufacturing enterprises in the regions do not operate, so they also do not need energy.

The energy system of thesSouth of Russia and the Krasnodar Territory can barely cope with its own needs. The main energy potential lies with the Tsimlyansk hydroelectric station, called the “energy donor” of the south of Russia.

The Tsimlyanskaya was put into operation in 1952. On March 1, 2023, work began on modernising its hydraulic unit. The complete reconstruction of the station, according to the implementation of the Russian energy strategy, should be completed before 2030.

The second facility supplying electricity to the south of the Russian Federation is the Rostov nuclear power plant, which is part of the facilities of the state energy company Rosatom. It is equipped with four power units with nuclear reactors of the VVER-1000 type. The daily amount of electricity generated by each power unit is about 25 million kWh. The nuclear power plant provides electricity to the southern and north Caucasus federal districts of Russia.

The Rostov plant is considered energy-scarce. At the beginning of last year, a fire occurred at the block transformer of the third power unit, which was under repair. Experts independent of Rosatom criticised the idea of operating nuclear power plant reactors beyond their designed capacity.

Crimea is an energy donor for the occupied Ukrainian south

By mid-summer 2022, the Russians restored high-voltage power lines in the south of the Kherson region (after the annexation of Crimea in 2015, they were destroyed by the Ukrainian side). Two lines of high-voltage cables pass through the Changar Peninsula, located in the northern part of the Sivash Bay in the Azov Sea. The Russians are trying to use this resource to close the Azov Ring. Now they are pulling a high-voltage line across the Perekop Isthmus, separating the Azov and Black Seas, and are trying to connect the mainland with the Crimean Peninsula.

In 2014, Crimea’s own generation amounted to no more than 162 MW, while another 900–950 MW was provided by energy supplies from Ukraine (supplies stopped in December 2014). Previously, several old thermal power plants operated on the peninsula, the largest of which was the Saki thermal power plant with a capacity of 120 MW.

In 2019, the Russians built two new thermal power plants—Tavricheskaya in Simferopol and Balaklavskaya in Sevastopol. Now, the total capacity of the two gas-fired power plants is estimated at 940 MW, which is approximately 90 per cent of Crimea’s total energy consumption. The total capacity of Crimean energy facilities (together with seven wind power plants and five solar power plants) is about 2070 MW.

Thanks to the construction of the two thermal power plants, for the first time in its history, Crimea turned from a recipient into a supplier of electricity.

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