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Ukraine’s Electrical Grid Shows How Hard It Is to Escape from Russia’s Grasp

8 minute read
Jayanti is an Eastern Europe energy policy expert. She served for ten years as a U.S. diplomat, including as the Energy Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine (2018-2020), and as international energy counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce (2020-2021). She is currently the Managing Director of Eney, a U.S.-Ukrainian decarbonization company.  

Ukraine has been invaded because it tried to break from Russia’s orbit and lean westward. Its effort to join the western world was most visibly on display during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, also known as Maidan after Kyiv’s Independence Square, and even more so now as civilians take up homemade weapons to fight invaders from the East.

Escaping Russia has taken many important but less obviously heroic forms since 2014. Ukraine has complied with the European Union’s Third Energy Package and de-monopolized its key Soviet era state-owned energy giants, including Naftogaz and Ukrenergo, the gas and electricity monopolies. It has taken steps toward adopting E.U. privacy and data protection rules. It secured visa-free travel to the E.U. for its citizens. It stopped importing Russian natural gas, buying it instead from Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Perhaps the least glamorous but no less critical, Ukraine has also been working hard to decouple its power sector, its electricity grid, from Russia’s grid so it can interconnect instead with Europe. It is easy to get too technical quickly, but essentially Ukraine is struggling to break free of Russian dominance over its electricity.

The invasion has rocked the Ukrainian electricity sector, of which approximately 52% is nuclear, 28% coal, 10% renewables, and 8% natural gas. According to Maxim Timchenko, CEO of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private sector power company, the country’s electricity grid was still stable after four days of Russian bombing. One of DTEK’s coal powered thermal plants is offline in occupied Luhansk, and Russian forces have seized the Kyiv hydroelectric plant and also apparently a hydroelectric plant in Nova Kakhovka. Russian troops have surrounded the 6 gigawatt Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, although as of Monday Energoatom said the plant was still online. Most renewables, wind and solar plants, are offline. Some damage has been suffered by distribution infrastructure. Yet somehow the overall grid, despite all this, remains operational.

Mostly stable it may be, but a small, untold, and critically important result of the Russian invasion is that Ukraine’s power grid is now dangerously orphaned. Much like the country being left by the world to fight for its life alone, Ukraine’s electricity system is currently isolated and under attack, wedged between Russia and Europe.

Read More: The Vital Missing Link in Sanctions Against Russia

The grid, a holdover from Soviet days, has been connected to Russia’s power grid and systems since its construction. Russia could previously turn Ukraine (and Moldova, among other former Soviet countries) off from Moscow, literally. Now, as Anders Åslund detailed for the Atlantic Council, Russia controls Ukraine’s electricity sector because the smaller country can only import electricity from Russia or Belarus due to their grids being interconnected. Russia also controls technical elements, such as the frequency of the electricity in the grid.

Ukraine has suffered for its continued electrical connection with Russia. Electricity has been one avenue of prosecuting its hybrid war against Ukraine since 2014. In December 2015, hackers the U.S. identified as Russian seized control of a grid control center in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast by exploiting a Microsoft Word feature to use as a phishing scam targeting electrical distribution company employees. The hackers shut off power to Kyiv and a sizable part of western Ukraine. Another Russian cyberattack on the grid came in 2016. Cyberattacks on Ukraine have spilled over into the rest of the world, such as the 2017 NotPetya ransomware attack, which cost effected countries an estimated $10 billion.

Both the U.S. and the E.U. poured money and technical assistance into Ukraine from 2016 to bolster the country’s electrical resiliency and develop cybersecurity systems for the power grid. Programs continue to this day. On December 2, 2021, the Council of the E.U. approved €31 million for, among other things, cyber protection. The U.S. Agency for International Development has a $38 million multiyear cyber assistance program running in Ukraine currently. Both these and other efforts do or will include critical infrastructure cyber defense. In fact, Ukraine has received more financial and technical assistance than it has had the capacity to absorb. Shoring up Ukrainian grid vulnerabilities has been slow.

Following Maidan, Ukraine got serious about breaking off from the Russian grid and linking up with Europe. In 2017, Ukraine’s electricity grid operator, Ukrenergo, signed an integration agreement with the Europe’s collection of grid operators, the European Network of Transmission System Operators, known as ENTSO-E. The agreement set a bunch of technical requirements necessary for Ukraine to prepare (synchronize) its electricity grid to integrate with the European network. Since then, Ukraine has been steadily complying and is now fully compliant. But like many of its efforts to connect with the West, such as NATO membership, it was nominally welcomed but has not been admitted.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this an emergency. Not only will cybersecurity remain at issue as long as Ukraine’s electricity grid remains connected to Russia, but Ukraine may lose power at any minute.

Read More: How Putin Is Losing at His Own Disinformation Game in Ukraine

One of the most important conditions for ENTSO-E integration is a test to see whether Ukraine can handle the actual switch over process without destabilizing its grid, because that instability could negatively affect European networks. At the most extreme, it could crash them. Called an Isolation Test, this requirement is the actual de-linking of the Ukrainian electricity system from Russia for a few days to see how it goes. It was scheduled for February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded. The de-linking happened on schedule. Ukraine’s grid was disconnected from Russia and it survived in perfect working order, with no evidence of disturbances.

Supposed to be just a couple of days long, the Isolation Test has now left Ukraine’s grid stranded. Ukraine is unable to connect with Europe because ENTSO-E has not approved integration yet, and Ukraine is absolutely unwilling to reconnect with Russia, the country that is violently bombing its people. Ukraine is now an electricity island. This means that if enough power plants are bombed or captured to cause blackouts, the country cannot import additional electricity to keep its homes lit, its factories operating, and its troops powered. It is unclear whether Russia’s seizure of power plants is part of a plan to turn Ukraine’s lights off, but the risk is very real.

Ukraine’s actual linking up with Europe’s power network was planned for 2023. The remaining technical requirements and tests were supposed to be conducted over the rest of 2022. Experts attribute these long six years since the 2017 integration agreement was signed to meticulous standards on the part of ENTSO-E and its members, but also to hesitancy on the part of individual European governments and grid operators. Some were wary of cheaper Ukrainian electricity competing with their domestic generation, possibly to include Poland, although Ukraine’s power is costlier than some. As with NATO membership, some have just dragged their feet, perhaps Italy and Spain among them. Complaints include that Ukraine’s overall power generation is low, that it does not invest adequately in its systems, and that the entire power sector is dominated by oligarchs. Overly restrictive or proscriptive regulation is another issue, with the Ukrainian government often meddling in electricity market mechanisms, such as through anticompetitive price caps. More problematic was the threat of Russian destabilization, which made for potential vulnerabilities European grid operators did not want to assume themselves.

Now those threats have been realized, Ukraine should be allowed to link its grid to Europe’s as quickly as possible. It has already met the technical requirements for synchronization, and ENTSO-E is not an exclusive club. It includes 42 grid operators in 35 countries, far broader than the European Union’s 27 member states. In fact, a small portion of Ukraine’s power system, Burshtyn Power Island that supplies 4% of Ukraine’s electricity in the far west of the country, has been integrated with Europe since 2003. However, every single member of ENTSO-E has to agree to admit Ukraine.

CEO of Ukrainian electricity transmission system operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytski, wrote a letter to ENTSO-E on February 27 “urgently request[ing] the emergency synchronization of the Ukrainian power system” with the European grid. He said this is critical to maintain electricity for Ukraine and to keep the electrical system safe.

The political will to help Ukraine is mounting hourly as Russia’s troops advance, tens of thousands of refugees flee, and bombs rain down in residential neighborhoods. On February 27, three days into Russia’s assault, E.U. energy commissioner Kadri Simson promised to try to get Ukraine emergency integration with ENTSO-E. An E.U. energy ministerial was held on February 28 at which the issue was discussed. No decision is yet forthcoming.

Electricity is a small part in the struggle Ukraine is facing against Russian subjugation. It is one of the many unglamorous fronts in a war that Ukraine should not have to fight. But it is an absolutely critical one, and one that depends not on Russia but on Europe. As Europe looks to support Ukraine as it defends itself by itself, one measure it should urgently include is keeping Ukraine lit during the seige.

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