Ukraine’s energy operator Ukrenergo said Monday it would be conducting emergency shutdowns in the Kyiv area following the latest Russian drone attacks. Russia has repeatedly used the drones to attack Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, often targeting critical infrastructure such as power and water facilities. Last week, VOA Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze spoke with Ukrenergo CEO Volodymyr Kudrytskyi about recent developments. Officials say at least $1.5 billion is needed for only the superficial quick restoration of Ukrainian energy facilities destroyed by Russian strikes.
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Q: Tell me where we are right now. What is going on in this station?
A: Oh, this is an ultra-high voltage substation, which is very important for southern and western region of Ukraine. We are operating, as you know, power system of Ukraine, and it comprises power stations or power plants and transmission lines and substations. The substations are one of the critical elements of the power grid, and they transform voltage from higher to lower level to distribute the power to end consumers.
And the heart of the substation is the transformer, which actually performs this function — to transform voltage from one place to another. And substation could be like 10, 15, 20, 40 plus hectares. So it's a large object and very important for the whole region, for millions of people who are powered from this object.
Q: It looks like Russian main objective for this winter is to destroy electrical infrastructure of Ukraine. How much is Ukraine suffering right now, and how do you see the things going ahead with this?
A: Well, first of all, I would like to say that Russia’s already launched more than 1,000 heavy missiles and kamikaze drones, specifically at Ukrainian electric grid. Mostly Ukrenergo objects, transmission objects, but also power plants. And this makes this campaign against power system the largest in human history. Nobody ever has experienced what we are experiencing now.
So, of course, such a scale of destruction presumes a lot of problems. And unfortunately millions of Ukrainians are now suffering from this because millions of people are cut from electricity supplies.
We have to introduce rolling power cuts in the country to maintain the perfect balance between generation and consumption in the system, and these rolling power cuts, of course, involve millions of our citizens, and this is going on during the winter.
But the ultimate goal of Russians, of course, is to initiate complete blackout of the system. And they use very clear strategies to inflict as much damage to power grid as possible. And that makes us think that they are consulted by their energy specialists to pick up targets. And of course they also are picking up time when it's cold outside to disconnect from the grid water supply heating systems, and therefore destroy this critical infrastructure, these types of critical infrastructure as well, because electricity grid is the most basic type of critical infrastructure. Without it, nothing else works.
So they selected attacks on electric grid for this very reason: to inflict as much suffering as possible. And this is probably their last chance to somehow change the situation in the battlefield with the war to make us negotiate with them.
Q: You said Russian energy specialists — and Russian energy specialists know Ukrainian electricity system very well because the systems were connected. You, before the war, just few hours literally before the war, you changed, you become independent and connected with Europe. Were you able to sustain in this situation?
A: Well, four hours before the invasion, we disconnected from Russian and Belarusian grid. At that time, we did not know that there would be an invasion. This was a test that we had to pass to connect our grid in the future to European electric system. And European electric system is the largest machine that humanity has ever invented in the world. It's very stable.
And most of all, the most important thing is that we would like to be a part of European energy space. And of course we would like to be connected to a stable reliable system. But we had to operate three weeks until we were connected to Europe, three weeks in isolation during the war, during the invasion.
Q: Instead you had three hours.
A: Instead of three days, we spent three weeks in isolation, and these three weeks were much more challenging than presumed three days of normal operation in isolated mode. We made a very interesting comparison.
Well, the power system has a heartbeat. This heartbeat is a frequency, which is 50 hertz in ideal situation. The frequency reflects the balance between generation and consumption at every second of time. So we compared our frequency profile with European frequency profile during these three weeks. And we found out — actually these were Europeans who found out — that our frequency regulation was better at the time.
I think this was one of the most important factors why they took us in three weeks, because the connection of Ukrainian power grid was meant to happen in 2023. And instead of doing the work in one and a half years, we made it in three weeks. But this, this frequency profile, so the quality of resilience of Ukrainian system was probably the most important argument for Europeans to let us in, to connect our grid to them.
Q: So what do you do from now? How are you planning to survive? What do you need from the Western community? My understanding is that the United States is supplying — only this [last] week supplied — some of the important equipment, I would say what next and what are you asking for?
A: Well, first we ask for equipment, second equipment and third equipment. We need a lot of equipment to replace the damages that were made by Russians. It's absolutely obvious that it is much easier and quicker to launch a missile and to destroy some high-voltage equipment or substation even as a whole than to rebuild it or restore it at least partially. That's why we are trying to enhance our ability to continue restoration of our objects. We have more than 1,000 people working in our company in house who are 24/7 restoring the objects like this one to make sure that Ukrainians still have access to power supplies.
We, of course, as a country we need more air defense, which is not a secret, and this is what our political leadership always mention when they talk to their international counterparts. Because as you increase your ability to restore the power grid, you have to decrease their ability to destroy. Because in order to survive this winter, we need to go both ways.
Also, yesterday (last week), during the Paris Conference on Ukrainian Restoration, President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy mentioned that Ukraine would like to get some electricity supplies from Europe. And this is exactly why we connected to EU grid, — to have an ability to get some emergency supplies if needed, and now we have a possibility to import electricity from EU.
You know, Ukraine was a very large exporter in the summer after our connection to Europe before these shellings, but now we need some support from Europe, and we hope that it can happen already in the upcoming days or couple of weeks. And this would soften the deficit of power that we currently have in our system.
Also, we're looking for mobile power plants. And there are technologies like this, and I believe in the United States as well, you can plug in a 20-, 30-, 50-megawatt power plant into the grid. You can bring it in to Ukraine and plug it into substation or existing power plant, and you can use it to support the grid. Because currently the biggest problem of Ukrainian power system is the lack of generation. So many terminal and hydropower plants were damaged or destroyed, so we cannot, unfortunately, cover the consumption. And this is the biggest problem And this is the reason why we have these rolling power cuts all over the country.
Q: You didn't mention yet atomic energy, and Ukraine [is] heavily dependent on atomic energy. Fifteen blocks generating more than half of the needed electricity in the country. How are you taking care of those plants, and is there any way that they can supply energy to Europe and Europe can give energy to Ukraine back?
A: Well, currently we do not supply energy to Europe because we lack energy ourselves. So all energy which is generated in Ukraine is consumed in Ukraine. Nuclear power plants, which are situated in controlled territory are in operation currently, and they support the system a lot. We always relied on nuclear energy since these nuclear power plants were built, and they usually cover 50 to 55% of the consumption, and our current situation is not an exception. So we rely much on them. Currently, they are able to inject power to the grid and to provide electricity for customers.
However, nuclear power was not and was never able to meet the whole demand in electricity in Ukraine. So, you need other types of power plants to cover the demand, which is changing from hour to hour of course, which is variable. That's why you need other types like thermo generation, hydro generation, and we have problems with these types of generation as the Russians shelled them heavily in the recent weeks and months.
And they also tried to disconnect nuclear power plants from the grid. And I must say that they did not do it by directly hitting those plants, but by shelling infrastructure around them, grid infrastructure, our substations. And I need to say that this is a very dangerous tactic because you cannot do this with the operational nuclear power plant. This is not a standard situation if nuclear power plants are suddenly disconnected from the grid, for example. But the Russians obviously ignored these risks just to inflict as much suffering as possible.
Q: And probably the last question, as they say, the war is mother or father of all changes. And I understand we are in an emergency situation, however, you probably think ahead. What is next for Ukrainian energy infrastructure? How do you see the future with Ukraine winning and being able to rebuild its country? How do you see the energy infrastructure in the country?
A: This is not a standard situation, if nuclear power plants are suddenly disconnected from the grid for example. But, Russians obviously ignored this risks just to inflict as much suffering as possible.
Q: As they say, the war is mother or father of all changes. And I understand we are in an emergency situation; however, you probably think ahead. What is next for Ukrainian energy infrastructure? How do you see the future with Ukraine winning and being able to rebuild its country? How do you see the energy infrastructure in the country?
A: Well, you know, we as a power system operator have an obligation, according to European standards and rules, to plan for the system development for 10, 20, 30 years ahead. And we were preparing quite detailed report how the power system of Ukraine of the future would look like, should look like, based on the biggest level of efficiency for consumers, and based on the environmental standards that would be applicable, or are already applicable, to civilized countries as Ukraine.
And I think that this war will create a push towards implementation of this strategy. This strategy presumes that we will be phasing out old-school inefficient coal- and gas-fired power plants. We will be replacing those with new generation types like biomass, for example, power plants, renewables, new nuclear units, which are maneuverable, more efficient, more flexible.
And we will of course involve consumers into the regulation of the power grid balance, and this is also possible. There are technologies that allow you to, when you plug in your EV to charge it at night, to actually render service to the system. So, if the dispatcher needs some power, it can recharge, discharge your battery. And if vice versa, it could do the opposite. And this service will be paid, so consumers will be paid for that.
So, the future is more flexible, decentralized, environmentally neutral generation types and systems, which will make Ukrainian system even more resilient, can you imagine it? We will have even more resilient systems after this war, but much more efficient and cheaper in terms of cost of electricity.
Q: And one more thing, because you mentioned decentralization, and Ukrainian energy was used in many ways as a part of corruption system in the country, and a lot of foreign investors were complaining that they cannot get into the country, helping the country to actually build a better, more effective energy supply system. Do you see this changing as well?
A: Yes. You know, I think it was in 2017 when we, at the level of transmission grid operator, introduced new processes of grid connection, for example. We created the rule that the grid connection contract has to be provided to a client in 10 days after the request, following very transparent procedure. And that led, for example, to quite a rapid increase of new generation types in the system. For example, renewable energy has grown by 10 times since then, 10 times. And the same we do with all other types of generation, big consumers that are connecting to our infrastructure.
I think that our connection to EU — one of the biggest targets that we wanted to achieve was this interconnection — was that we would make Ukraine part of a much bigger market. And if you imagine that, that some fish could be big and powerful in a small tank, the same fish would be not that strong and powerful in the ocean. So, we are now connected to EU system. It's 20, 25 times bigger than Ukrainian power grid. There is no Ukrainian player that could be influential in that European ocean.
So, we created competition possibility. We create the possibility of exporting electricity to Europe to earn money for our country but also to import electricity from Europe, and European electricity is cheaper, to prevent internal big players from manipulating the market. And this is one of the biggest achievements that will be strategically important for building back better after this war.