How Ukraine could keep the lights on, as Russia attacks its power supplies

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The DTEK said about one million people in the Mariupol and Kiev regions do not have access to electricity.

Intensive attacks have raised fears that Russia could target additional nuclear plants and other key power facilities.

Attacking the energy system is a particularly effective tactic, causing widespread damage by striking relatively small targets, says Adam Stein, associate director of nuclear innovation at the Breakthrough Institute.

And it could have lethal effects amid the country’s cold winter temperatures. Even if the natural-gas pipeline remains intact, the pumping stations and homes and buildings need electricity to run the furnaces.

“Let’s not be mistaken: pushing Ukraine’s power plants offline will kill civilians,” Tweeted Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton who specializes in energy modeling.

Power outages could shut down subways, buses and trains used by civilians to escape; Turn off lights in bomb shelters and hospitals; And wastes food and medicine. It also threatens to cut off communications, disrupt government planning, weaken military defenses and weaken morale.

Sync grid

As of Sunday, radiation levels at the Zaporizhzia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine were normal, but only two of the six reactors were running, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The general team is still operating the plant, but they are now operating “under the command of the commander of the Russian forces” who took control of the site. They have also shut down the communication line.

Ukraine has only limited options to strengthen the resilience of its power grid in the midst of war. DTEK quickly commissioned nine additional coal turbines last week to make up for lost power from the nuclear plant.

But the country’s coal and natural gas reserves were already below normal levels this winter. Normal supply lines, from mines to ports, may be blocked, at risk of attack, or already damaged. Notably, the railway tracks delivering coal to a separate power plant in Zaporizhzia “blew up,” DTEK noted.

George Zachmann, a senior fellow at Brugel, an economic think tank focusing on Ukrainian energy issues, says filling in for nuclear plant production would speed up the disposal of reserves.

Officials and energy officials in the nation are pushing for another possibility: by rapidly integrating the country’s grid with the EU system, the flow of electricity can be turned on, especially in the event of a sudden or widespread outage.

UKRENERGO NPC SE in Kiev
Ukraine’s Kiev headquarters, a Ukrainian power company, is lobbying to integrate its grid with the European Union system.

Pavlo Balanenko / Alami

That effort was already underway. In 2017, the country’s main transmission operator, Ukrenergo, ENTSO-E, signed a partnership agreement with an association of more than 40 transmission operators in Europe. But integration will require the installation of frequency control capabilities and other technologies to make the grid interoperable, as well as comprehensive system safety tests and various complex regulatory and power market agreements.

Full integration will also require the transmission line to be turned on or built by Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, Zackman noted in an analysis last year. It will collectively deliver more than five gigawatts of electricity, more than 10% of Ukraine’s normal production capacity, the level required by the EU and ENTSO-E for such cross-border integration.

All of that was expected to cost at least 600 million and take years to complete.

It is now hoped that the parties will be able to synchronize systems in “emergency mode”, possibly in days or weeks, with the exception of some general requirements and agreements. Zachman says limited integration could tap Ukraine into a line already connecting it with Hungary and Slovakia.

EU Energy Commissioner Qadri Simson said there was “a comprehensive agreement to move forward” as soon as possible, Reuters reported.

But there may still be some significant technical and political challenges that hold unification. Late last month, ENTSO-E said its transmission operators would “immediately evaluate” the options and make the effort a “matter of priority.” But he did not provide details about the current state of the undertaking or the estimated time.

In response to a query from the MIT Technology Review, the press office said its experts were evaluating various technology options and should take into account system stability, regulatory issues and cyber security concerns.

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