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A three-month Russian bombing campaign has destroyed much of Ukraine’s electricity generation capacity and left civilians paying the price for the Western powers’ incoherent policies.

Russia has fired dozens of missiles and drones at power stations simultaneously, to break through overburdened air defences. Some have been completely destroyed. Hundreds of towns and villages are suffering lengthy blackouts.

With much of the world’s attention, and anger, focused on the multiple war crimes committed daily in Gaza—including mass murder of civilians and the leveling of infrastructure—the relentless Russian bombing has been out of the headlines.

But another human tragedy is in the making. It is hard to see how the system can be fixed by winter, and more people could be forced from their homes.

Here I report on the extent of the damage, the proposed responses, the gaps in Western policy that have aggravated the problem, and the prospects for an energy system facing an open-ended campaign of aggression.

The Bombing Campaign

Russian attacks have destroyed or damaged almost all of Ukraine’s thermal power stations (that burn coal or gas) and several hydropower stations. Eight gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity—more than a quarter of the total operating last year—has been lost, the energy ministry said, leaving the electricity network more dependent than ever on nuclear power.

The onslaught began on March 22. Air strikes destroyed the Zmiyiv power station and the Combined Heat and Power plant no. 5 in the Kharkiv region, where Russian ground forces have been on the offensive. At the Dnipro hydropower station, one of Ukraine’s largest, bomb damage that shut down its electricity plant—although, thankfully, not the dam—will take “several years” to repair, its director said.

There were two more bombing raids in March, four in April, and three in May. On April 11, the Trypilska plant near Kyiv and the Uglegorodska plant in Donetsk were destroyed.

Under Ukraine’s martial law, publishing details of damage to critical infrastructure is prohibited, but the outlines of the problem are clear.

DTEK, the largest privately-owned electricity generator, had by last month lost 90 percent of its capacity. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, its power plants have suffered 180 missile strikes, in which 51 employees were wounded and three killed.

State-owned Ukrhydrenergo said its hydroplants have been hit by 110 missiles—in addition to the catastrophic destruction, probably by the Russian army, of the giant Kakhovka dam in June last year. Centrenergo, a smaller state-owned power producer, said in mid-April that 100 percent of its capacity was down.

This year’s Russian bombing, focused on power stations, follows a sustained campaign in the winter of 2022-23 to destroy substations. Of the 94 on government-held territory, 41 were destroyed or damaged. District heating systems that warm millions of Ukrainian homes were also targeted: many are “damaged beyond recovery”, the UN Development Program concluded.

The frequency and extent of blackouts is rising. All but two of Ukraine’s 24 regions have suffered: Dixi Group, the energy think tank, says the top six are Donetsk (with 3.7 million household-days of blackouts), Kharkiv (1.77 million), Zaporizhzhya (933,000), Kherson (604,000), Mykolaiv (595,000), and Dnipropetrovsk (421,000).

Blackouts are more frequent still in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. The parts of Donetsk and Luhansk occupied in 2014 had two power stations between them, sufficient only to meet the most basic needs. Shortages are also dire in parts of Zaporizhzhya and Kherson occupied in 2022. In November last year, Moscow announced a plan to restore damaged generation capacity and hook it up to the southern Russian grid, but this could take years.

Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, at Zaporizhzhya, has not generated electricity since the Russian army occupied it in March 2022. Rafael Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said last month that, while the situation since drone attacks in April may have seemed “relatively calm” to the outside world, “the stark reality is one of constant danger.” Constant power cuts leave the safety regime “precarious.”

How to Respond

How to restore electricity generation by the winter, when supply of light and heat to homes becomes a life-and-death question, is being fiercely debated in Ukraine. There are four months to the start of the heating season in October.

It is hard to see how the gap between available generation capacity and the minimum needed for light, heat, and weapons production—let alone for the rest of the economy—can be bridged.

Repairing a power station usually takes many months, and some will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Some energy company managers and researchers advocate a focus on small-scale generators—solar, wind farms, and small gas-fired engines and turbines—that are quick to install and much harder to bomb.

Ukraine has 1.7 GW of electricity interconnections with its western neighbours: this could go up to at least 2.3 GW, allowing for more electricity imports. But the extra 0.6 GW would only cover a small fraction of Ukrainian demand.

Energy researcher Viktor Kurtev warned last month that the system’s uncovered deficit, now 1.3 GW, would rise in the winter to at least 5 GW (roughly five large power stations’ worth). As well as an emergency program of repairs, Kurtev urged “a broad campaign to purchase (or hire) on the world market modular reciprocating gas-powered engines and gas turbines.”

These mini generators (10-30 MW of capacity) should be allied to an “ecosystem of active consumers” who can supplement grid electricity by producing their own. The government should mandate energy-saving measures such as switching rail transport to diesel and providing smart meters, Kurtev argued.

Volodymyr Omelchenko at the Razumkov research center warned that Russian bombing has aimed to precipitate “socio-economic collapse.” In addition to electricity-generation measures he called for a campaign to install mini-boilers and heat pumps.

Last month at Eurelectric, an industry conference, DTEK chief executive officer Maxim Timchenko appealed to other companies to donate decommissioned power units and other spare stocks to Ukraine.

The Ukraine Energy Forum, a business gathering in London last month, also heard calls for voluntary and private sector action. Neil Carmichael of Pacific Green, an equipment manufacturer, said the electricity network is “no longer an economic development issue: it’s an existential issue for Ukraine.” Modular battery systems, housed in standard containers, could support network resilience.

Contributors to a robust discussion said the Ukrainian government needs urgently to establish a single point of contact to buy generators. “No one is in charge,” complained an angry speaker who had tried for months to arrange purchase and transport of equipment. Government time should be spent on tackling this year’s emergency, rather than on long-term nuclear expansion plans, said another.

Civil society groups working locally, such as Ecoaction and Ecoclub of Rivne, also put the emphasis on decentralized electricity generation and municipal energy-efficiency schemes.

Gas Infrastructure Targeted

This year’s bombing raids also for the first time targeted Ukraine’s giant gas storage facilities—even while Russian gas continues to flow through Ukrainian pipelines to buyers in Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary.

The storage complex near Ukraine’s western border, built in Soviet times as a staging post for gas bound for Europe, was targeted by drones and missiles on March 24. Another raid on  April 11 did more serious damage.

This wanton destruction is symptomatic of Russia’s decision in 2022 to sacrifice its gas trade with Europe for the sake of military aggression against Ukraine.

While Western powers have sanctioned Russian oil exports, within limits, the Kremlin itself “self sanctioned” gas, and ordered Gazprom, the state-owned producer, to slash exports to Europe. Multi-billion euro claims against Gazprom, for breach of contract, are now going through commercial arbitration courts: the Austrian energy company OMV warned last month it might be unable to pay for Russian gas deliveries, as one such court had ordered that payments be sequestered.

Russian pipeline gas exports to the European Union have fallen from more than 160 billion cubic metres per year before 2022 to less than 30 bcm/year. The contract under which Ukraine transports this gas westwards expires at the end of this year, and Kyiv has “no plans” to renew it, energy minister German Galushchenko has said. At most, from next year European companies might buy small volumes of Russian gas at Ukraine’s eastern border.

Since the Russian invasion of 2014, Ukraine has reoriented its gas business towards Europe, offering storage services to European traders. Russia appears to have decided to wreck the infrastructure rather than allow this to continue.

Western Powers Divided

The success of Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure is attributable partly to the incoherence of Western policy on Ukraine. Political leaders zig-zag from meaningless talk of “victory” to warnings that military aid will be cut, often in response to short-term domestic conversations. Sanctions policy is strongly influenced by oil company lobbying and by the White House’s determination that oil prices should not rise in a U.S. election year.

Against this background of competing influences, Ukraine’s pleas for air defense to be prioritized have met with poor responses.

In February, military analysts at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK argued that “a year of strategic dithering” in 2023 had cost Ukraine dear. The United States “micromanages the war by reluctantly providing needed weapons systems at a much slower pace relative to the Europeans,” they wrote.

As for air power, the much-debated F-16s that will go to Ukraine are not the most modern versions: “the Ukrainians will not be able to field enough F-16 sorties to deter or shoot down Russian Tu-95s that attack Ukrainian cities with hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles.”

A few weeks later, missiles hit the power stations and NATO countries reacted hastily. Germany’s decision to send desperately needed Patriot air defense systems was an “abrupt pivot,” defense analyst Marina Miron argued: days earlier, Germany’s foreign minister had said that none was available. At Ukraine’s ministry of strategic industries, adviser Yuriy Sak said people on the ground could not help but make comparisons between their own defenselessness and the gold-plated missile defense systems supplied to Israel.

The United States, too, announced that it was “rushing” Patriot missile systems to Ukraine, after the dispute between the White House and Congress on military funding was resolved. Late last month, Spain said it would contribute to Ukrainian air defense.

The United States last week decided to allow weapons it has supplied to strike targets on Russian territory near Kharkiv. Some of the potential military advantage may already have been undone by the power station attacks.

Future Energy Policy

The clouds of Russian bombing, and emergency winter planning, hang heavy over discussions about Ukraine’s longer-term energy policy prospects and post-war reconstruction. In reality, the issues cannot be separated: technologies that are durable in wartime, and sustainable in the long term, must be favored.

The Ukrainian government’s approach is reflected in its Ukraine Facility Plan 2024-2027, which will go to the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin next week. It is designed to attract Western funding for post-war reconstruction and is drafted according to neo-liberal principles that have long subordinated EU energy provision to big corporations: liberalization of gas and electricity markets figures prominently.

Alongside renewables, the plan gives pride of place to nuclear, with U.S. and other Western fuel and equipment replacing Russian imports—and indeed in April, the U.S. nuclear firm Westinghouse started building a fifth unit at Ukraine’s Khmelnitsky nuclear plant. The Energy Community, an EU-linked body to which Ukraine belongs, envisages rapid renewables development alongside nuclear expansion.

Two approaches stand in contrast to the government’s. Civil society campaigners argue in a policy brief that centralized power stations, whether fossil-fueled or nuclear, are “associated with significant military risks,” are “too slow,” and are “extremely expensive” to build, and that integrated power system development should be based on decentralized electricity generation and energy efficiency.

Some European energy corporations also favor decentralized renewables. Resilience through decentralization has “nothing to do with large nuclear or combined-cycle gas turbines that some stakeholders are talking about,” Igor Petryk of Finland-based Wartsila told the Ukraine Energy Forum in London. Scenario analysis conducted by the firm had showed that renewable generation could be balanced by flexible district heating technologies including gas-engine-driven combined heat and power plants, heat pumps, electric boilers, and heat storage.

Energy is politics. The future of the Ukrainian system depends on the course of the war and its outcome, and on the political course taken by government and society.

Oleh Savitsky of Razom We Stand said: “In Berlin, the civil society organisations will argue that we need to change energy sector governance, redesign the whole system for the post-fossil fuel era, and move away from populism. But first of all, we desperately need air defenses. Otherwise there will not be much left to reconstruct.”

Source of original article: Foreign Policy In Focus (
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