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Oct 27, 2023, 11:00am EDT
net zero

Ukrainians brace for another grueling winter

A Ukrainian power station damaged by Russian missile attacks.
Courtesy DTEK
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The News

As temperatures begin to fall in Ukraine, residents are braced for a second winter of blackouts and heat cutoffs. The air raid sirens in Kyiv have been relatively quiet in the last few weeks, but officials expect that to change as Russia resumes its targeted shelling of power plants and other energy infrastructure.

“The coming winter will definitely not be easier than the last one,” Dmytro Sakharuk, executive director of DTEK, the country’s largest private energy generation and distribution company, told Semafor. “Because unfortunately, we are not the only ones preparing for it — the Russians are too.”

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Tim’s view

Targeting civilian power infrastructure during winter is one of the surest methods Russia’s military has to sap Ukrainians’ morale, as it did to devastating effect last year. In the last week alone, thousands of families in southern and eastern Ukraine near regions still occupied by Russia temporarily lost power because of Russian strikes.

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DTEK and other energy companies have been working overtime to repair damaged facilities, stockpile equipment, and build new renewable energy that, in addition to reducing the grid’s carbon intensity, are more resilient to airstrikes. Still, the energy system remains one of Ukraine’s greatest vulnerabilities, especially since much of it dates to the Soviet era — meaning Russia knows the layout intimately, and that spare parts for aging facilities are chronically in short supply.

Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, Ukraine had enough spare electricity to export some to the European Union. Since then, several large power plants have been captured, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and a large onshore wind farm, which remain under Russian control, or destroyed, like the Kakhovka Dam hydroelectric plant. Altogether, nearly 9,000 energy assets, including transformers and transmission lines, have been damaged or destroyed, at a value of about $11 billion, according to DTEK, and the country’s generation capacity is half its pre-war level. The firm has also seen 240 employees killed and 700 injured.

DTEK is racing to rebuild and fortify its infrastructure. The company has spent $41 million on spare equipment, and has installed sandbags and concrete blocks around most of its facilities. This year it doubled its investment in coal mining and purchasing from 2022 levels, spending $200 million, and tripled the pace of natural gas drilling. In May, it also opened a 114-megawatt onshore wind farm near the Black Sea, just 60 miles from the front line — renewable energy, Sakharuk said, has the advantage of being harder to take out in a single strike, since it’s distributed across a larger area than a fossil power plant. And this month Ukraine secured $522 million from the U.S. for energy infrastructure security and a shipment of solar panels donated by Japan, while increasing natural gas imports from the EU seven-fold.

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But all of that preparation is essentially useless, Sakharuk said, if Russian drones and missiles continue to find their targets. Keeping the lights and heat on is ultimately a job for Ukraine’s military, which has been developing ways to stretch its limited supply of air defense weapons, including by converting U.S.-supplied air-to-air Sidewinder missiles into surface-to-air missiles in order to defend energy infrastructure, according to the Financial Times.

“The key is air defense,” Torsten Woellert, an energy official in the EU delegation to Ukraine, told Semafor. “If the air defense works, the energy will be secure. If it doesn’t, it won’t be.”

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Room for Disagreement

One factor working in Ukraine’s favor could be the weather. This year is likely to be the hottest on record globally, pushed by climate change and the El Niño cycle. That doesn’t mean blackouts will be completely painless, but relatively warm temperatures may prevent the pipelines that carry steam heat from freezing and bursting if they are temporarily disabled, meaning they can come back online much more quickly. And despite the shortage of hardware, both the military and energy companies are more experienced than they were last year, said Andrian Prokip, director of the energy program at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based think tank: “So that gives us hope.”

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The View From Russia

Meanwhile, sanctions on Russia’s energy economy don’t appear to be working. In September, Russia pocketed more than $7 billion in oil and gas revenue, its second-highest monthly haul this year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The conflict in Gaza and oil production cuts by Saudi Arabia have driven the price of oil well above the $60-per-barrel price cap G7 countries and the EU imposed on Moscow earlier this year. But Russia, working through unscrupulous middlemen to reach buyers in China and India, has faced scant enforcement of the sanctions by Western officials who are afraid to take any barrels off the global market and thus raise prices for their own constituents.

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