Eastern Europe holds the key to maintaining Ukraine’s power | Popgen Tech
By Andrius Sytas and Marek Strzelecki
VILNIUS/WARSAW (Reuters) – In Lithuania, a giant unused electrical transformer built in 1980 in what is now Ukraine has been dusted off and prepared for shipment. It will travel by sea to Romania and then back to Ukraine, possibly in the coming weeks.
Rokas Masiulis, head of Lithuania’s power grid, said his company was looking for warehouses for anything else Ukraine might need to repair the damage done to its electricity system by repeated Russian missile attacks.
“The Ukrainians say it’s fine to receive anything, including things that don’t work or are broken, as they can fix the equipment themselves,” he told Reuters.
As the West rushes to replenish Kiev’s stockpile of weapons and ammunition, countries in Europe and beyond are also in a race to provide transformers, switches and cables as well as diesel generators needed to light the country in winter and to heat
Ukraine has shared a list with European countries of about 10,000 items it urgently needs to maintain power.
Former members of the Soviet Union and the ex-communist bloc have a big role to play based on their proximity and that some grids in the region still have hardware compatible with Ukraine.
Masiulis said the biggest need is for automatic transformers, like the one destined for Ukraine. Worth about 2 million euros ($2.13 million) and weighing nearly 200 tons, it took two weeks to be stripped of removable parts and drained of oil for transport.
“We are in the process of updating our network, and everything we strip down we send to Ukraine,” he said. Latvia, Lithuania’s northern neighbor and also once part of the Soviet Union, said it was sending five large transformers to Ukraine, two of which were ready to move soon.
Since early October, Russian forces have targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, causing blackouts and forcing millions of people to endure sub-zero temperatures with little or no heating.
Moscow says the strikes are justified as part of its “special military operation” to humiliate Ukrainian forces. Kiev and the West see the barrage as a cynical attack on civilians to break their spirit and weaken the enemy.
Regional European bodies and countries including Azerbaijan, France, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and individual companies have already sent thousands of pieces of equipment to Ukraine.
“We are looking all over the world for replacements for the equipment destroyed during the attacks,” Yaroslav Demchenkov, Ukraine’s deputy energy minister, said in early December.
Ukraine has managed to avoid a “total collapse” of the power distribution system, he said, but disruptions are significant. About 80% of Kiev region was without electricity for two days this week after Russian missile and drone attacks.
Estimating the total value of the support is impossible, given the fragmented and rushed nature of the response, but tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transformers and generators have been shipped.
Challenges include finding the right hardware to meet Ukraine’s needs. As a former member of the Soviet Union, its system of power is not always compatible with other countries, including neighbors to the north.
The supply of generators cannot match demand, company officials said, especially since some of the most needed deliveries can take months.
“Unfortunately, high-voltage transformers, which we need most, are not there yet,” Oleksandr Kharchenko, director at the Energy Industry Research Center based in Kyiv, said on Ukrainian state television on Wednesday.
He said there were a few in the world that could be shipped, but didn’t expect them to arrive before February at the earliest.
Lithuania’s transmission grid operator has already sent hundreds of smaller transformers, which reduce the voltage as it travels from power station to end user, and its gas grid has supplied parts to Ukraine.
Polish state-owned utility Tauron said last week it had sent 21 kilometers (13 miles) of wire, nine drums, 129 insulators, 39 transformers and 11 overhead circuit breakers, which spokesman Łukasz Zimnoch described as gifts.
Some deliveries are in response to Ukrainian requests, while private firms there are ordering alternative supplies to keep businesses running.
Jerzy Kowalik, commercial director of Polish generator maker EPS System, said the company had received many orders from Ukraine, some for dozens of large units at a time.
“There is a problem with the availability of engines that we use amid a global boom for generators fueled by the energy crisis,” Kowalik said. His firm of about 100 employees cannot meet the demand and is turning down some requests from Ukraine.
Volodymyr Kudrystski, chairman of the management board at Ukraine’s grid operator Ukrenergo, said the acquisition of urgently needed transformers is complicated by the fact that Ukraine’s standard power transmission lines are 750 kilovolts and 330 kV. Those in neighboring Poland are, for example, 400 kV and 220 kV.
Switches, disconnectors and circuit breakers are also crucial as about 70 Ukrenergo restoration teams, or about 1,000 people, work day and night to restore power and subcontractors have been hired.
LONGER TERM SUPPLY PLANS
During peak times, Ukraine consumes approximately 16 Gigawatts of electricity. It can import up to 10% of it from neighboring systems, although lines connecting it to Poland were damaged in recent attacks before being repaired and Romania is so far only a marginal source.
This means that Ukraine is making use of its own reserves of equipment, built up in anticipation of a possible invasion, and sent from abroad.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said this month that 500,000 smaller generators had been imported by Ukrainian businesses, but that the country needed 17,000 large or industrial generating units to get through the winter.
This was particularly important for critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water pumping stations.
One of the bodies that oversees energy support in Europe is the Energy Community Secretariat, an international group established by the European Union and eight member states that aspire to EU membership.
Its director, Artur Lorkowski, said more than 60 private companies in Europe from 20 countries were involved, with 800 tons of equipment already shipped and dozens more deliveries planned.
As supplies of state-owned European power grids dwindle, Lorkowski expected the private sector to become more important in meeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure needs.
Talks are being held by the G7 to divest companies in the United States, Canada and Japan, he added.
“This will give us the scale that will make a difference in Ukraine,” Lorkowski told Reuters.
A first installment of $13 million worth of U.S. power equipment has been shipped to Ukraine, officials said, and two more planeloads were due to leave soon. Ukraine was also in talks with Japan.
Lorkowski and some other officials predicted that hardware might have to be designed and built from scratch, although such a shift would take time and money.
Ukrainian officials seeking to integrate Ukraine’s economy with Western Europe are considering a major overhaul of the energy sector, although patching the current grid is the priority for now.
Some imported equipment has been donated, while countries and international lending agencies are also providing loans and grants to help Kyiv afford the repairs.
Olena Osmolovska, director of the reform support team at Ukraine’s energy ministry, said it would cost tens of billions of dollars to fully restore the energy system.
($1 = 0.9406 euros)
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Riga, Marek Strzelecki in Warsaw; Additional reporting by Olena Harmash and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Barbara Lewis)