How Ukrainian power engineers are preparing for the winter

How ready is Ukraine for winter? When should the country expect new blackouts? What new means of defence do the authorities have against shelling? Why are deliveries of critical equipment delayed? 

Before the war, the repair season in the Ukrainian energy sector traditionally lasted from May to September. But in the wake of Russia’s attacks, power engineers now believe that the repair campaign will drag on for many years.  

With the lion’s share of generation and distribution facilities destroyed or damaged, it is impossible to talk about a full recovery within six months, and it is difficult to make predictions about possible outages without knowing in advance how destructive the new Russian attacks will be.  

The only thing we can be sure of is that the shelling will continue. 

Since the last heating season, from October 2022 to May 2023, the Russian Federation has shelled man Ukrainian power facilities. There were 33 massive attacks and about 270 hits, according to the Energy Ministry. According to the National Security and Defence Council, the enemy fired about 1,500 missiles and drones in total.  

As of the end of April 2023, there was not a single thermal power plant or hydroelectric power plant left in Ukraine that had not suffered some damage, said a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank (WB) released in June. 

Russia’s most devastating strikes were on distribution facilities: between October 2022 and March 2023, there were attacks or attempted attacks on nearly all critical high-voltage substations. As of late April, 42 of 94 high-voltage substations had been damaged, and 41 of 94 critical high-voltage transformers had been damaged or destroyed. 

The missile attacks destroyed the entire 750 kV high-voltage network, which is used to distribute electricity from nuclear and other power plants throughout Ukraine. 

Nuclear power generation remains the only source that was not affected by the targeted Russian strikes. However, its capacity has decreased by 44.2 per cent after the shutdown in September of units at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, whose site was seized by the Russians on March 4, 2022.  

Three of the four nuclear power plants that were operating before the full-scale war remain in operation: the South Ukrainian NPP, the Rivne NPP, and the Khmelnitsky NPP. These plants are undamaged. 

As of the end of April 2023, there were no thermal power plants (TPPs) or large combined heat and power plants (CHPPs) in Ukrainian controlled territory that had not sustained various degrees of damage.

As of April 30, of the 17.1 GW of available capacity of thermal power plants, 11.1 GW were damaged, were under temporary military control of the Russian Federation, or could not be connected to the unified energy system of Ukraine for various reasons.  

Out of 77 power units of 13 TPPs operating in Ukraine, only 22 power units at nine TPPs were operating. Their available capacity was 4.6 GW, 68 per cent less than at the end of 2021, according to a June UNDP report. 

CHPP capacity also suffered significant damage. Eight of the 25 largest CHPP plants were not generating electricity at the end of April, according to the report. Some 48.3 per cent of CHPPs (1.4 GW) were damaged, while 3.4 per cent (0.1 GW) remained under temporary Russian military control. Available CHPP capacity decreased from 2.9 GW at the end of 2021 to 1.4 GW at the end of April 2023. 

Available renewable energy capacity meanwhile fell 24 per cent to 6.2 GW from 8.1 GW due to the attacks. 

At the end of the fall and winter period, the power grid had temporarily lost 44 per cent of nuclear generation, 78 per cent of thermal power plant capacity, 66 per cent of block CHPP capacity, 12 per cent of hydroelectric capacity, 75 per cent of wind generation, and more than 20 per cent of solar generation due to the destruction and occupation. 

This winter may be worse than last year 

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko says that the energy system is more vulnerable than last year. There is no excess capacity, and there is little spare equipment, the minister believes.  

The situation is complicated by bureaucracy: the allocation of money and equipment purchases are slow. In September, Lana Zerkal, a former advisor to Energy Minister German Galushchenko and former Ukrainian Foreign Minister for European Integration, said that thermal power plants had completed only 30 per cent of their repair work. But according to the government, 62 per cent of the repair campaign at thermal power plants has been completed. 

There is a lot of manipulation and unsupported claims about the absence of problems around the preparation for winter. On September 6, Ildar Saleev, CEO of DTEK Energy (which owns more than 70 per cent of Ukraine’s thermal generation), posted on Facebook that the company had already repaired 13 thermal power units out of the 27 planned for this year, or 48 per cent of the plan. 

It is not known for certain how much of the plan has been fulfilled by another major thermal generation producer, the state-owned Centrenergo. In early August, Ukrainian Forbes wrote that the state-owned company could not carry out the planned repairs due to a shortage of 600 million hyrvnia (15.6 million euros). 

Centrenergo CEO Andriy Churkin promised that the company would get through the winter at the same capacity as last year, but did not specify how many units had already been prepared. 

Konstantin Ushchapovsky, head of the National Commission for State Regulation of Energy and Utilities, said that the amount of restoration work at CHP and TPPs is only 1.6 per cent of the damage caused by the Russians.  

“Unfortunately, the figures we have on the implementation of emergency repair work, as of July 1, 2023, do not give us a positive opinion on the successful passage of the autumn-winter period,” he said recently. 

“Technically, we are in a much worse condition than a year ago, but psychologically we are in a better situation. We gained a unique experience last year under rocket fire. No other energy system has ever experienced this,” said Oleksandr Kharchenko, director of the Energy Research Center. 

According to Kharchenko, the current state of the power system is much more vulnerable than a year ago, and reserves have decreased. “In cold weather, we will not get through the winter without outages, even if there are no attacks. If the temperature drops to minus 10-15 degrees for several days, we will have scheduled outages because we will lack capacity. Even with imports and emergency assistance. We barely made it through August,” Kharchenko said. 

In an interview, Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko mentioned that Ukraine is connected to the European power grid and can import electricity if necessary. 

Electricity imports will not help 

Lana Zerkal believes that imports cannot save the Ukrainian energy system. Currently, there is a limit of 1200 MW on imports. On September 5, the Minister of Energy said that Ukraine is applying to increase its import capacity to 2000 MW.  

However, the decision to expand import capacities is made by the European Union’s club of network operators, ENTSO-E. There is a Hungarian grid operator that is against increasing the capacity. Last year, it had an explanation: some of its transformers could overheat.  

In addition, the Ukrainian national regulator has set price caps. During peak consumption, prices on the Ukrainian market are lower than on the markets of neighbouring countries. It is unlikely that traders will be willing to buy expensive European electricity to sell it at a loss to Ukraine. 

The situation may change at the end of 2023, when the Ukrainian operator Ukrenergo becomes a full member of ENTSO-E. This will allow us to influence the decisions of this organisation from within. 

Protecting energy facilities 

Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, chairman of the board of the national energy company Ukrenergo, says that the Ukrainian cabinet has approved 9.7 billion hryvnia to protect substations. But the money is still unavailable due to a number of bureaucratic procedures.  

“In parallel with our attempts to obtain budgetary funding, we are trying to negotiate with international financial organisations to re-profile loans or receive grant assistance for these purposes. We are talking about the same amount as from the budget—about 220-250 million US dollars. We plan to complete the construction of defense structures before the cold weather,” the CEO summarised. 

According to Kudrytskyi, the heating season is 95 per cent dependent on shelling. The pessimistic scenario is that the scale of missile and drone attacks will be the same as last year, with extensive damage to grids and power plants, and possible power outages.  The CEO of Ukrenergo promises to use backup power supply schemes for consumers and restore everything after damage. 

“The main parts of the power facilities are surrounded by sandbags to protect them from debris, but nothing can be done in case of a direct hit. It is impractical to put high-voltage transformers in concrete cases, because they will overheat,” says the director of one of the power plants, recalling November 2022. 

Ukrainian power engineers are now replacing the sandbags that were used last year to protect power facilities with gabions, structures filled with stones. 

The State Agency for the Restoration and Development of Infrastructure of Ukraine plans to build large sarcophagi for power facilities in a short time, but this project is at an early stage. 

Air defence systems also play an important role, as they have become more effective against enemy missiles and drones with experience. It is predicted that by the end of this year, the number of additional mobile missile and air defense systems to protect power system facilities will increase.  

President of Volodymyr Zelensky has been raising the issue of additional missile and air defence systems at various levels, “because Russia is using genocidal practices, such as attacks on civilians or critical infrastructure.”  

At the same time, the Russians have changed their shelling tactics and instead of using expensive missiles, they have started using swarms of drones, the destruction of which requires large resources from air defence. 

Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.

You can contribute here. Thank you.

emerging europe support independent journalism