US Energy Secretary Discusses Plan to ‘Warproof’ Ukraine’s Electrical Grid

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Ukraine’s power grid has been a target of Russian attacks since mid-October. The United States now is in the process of sending a third round of assistance to help restore damaged infrastructure.

But the ultimate goal is to help Ukraine build a new “warproof” distributed power grid, said Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. secretary of Energy.

As Ukraine marks one year since Russia's full-scale invasion, Secretary Granholm talked to VOA’s Iuliia Iarmolenko about the U.S. assistance, Ukrainian resilience, and a clean energy future.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: It has been a year since Russia launched a full-scale war and it's been at least four months since Russia started this campaign of brutal attacks on Ukraine's energy sector. How do you assess the current situation with Ukraine's energy grid?

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm: Well, I do know that the president — President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy — has really expressed a desire to have a different grid. A grid that is distributed, that has clean energy, but also that isn't so centralized so that it becomes a target. And that is very encouraging, that's something we very much want to work with Ukraine on and we have labs that are already … our national labs that are already preparing strategies to be able to get to that.

Ultimately you want to basically warproof an electric grid. What we have been doing is sending ... We've been scanning for high-voltage equipment that would be compatible with Ukraine's electric grid. It's a Soviet-era grid, and so, therefore, it's difficult for our transformers for example aren't compatible. So, we're canvassing around the world and all of our utilities to see what equipment can we send.

Where we are in the process now of sending the third tranche of equipment to Ukraine so that they can replace what has been damaged. But ultimately in the long term, what we need to do is to fulfill the president's goals to get a distributed electric grid so that if one section is damaged, it doesn't bring down a whole region.

VOA: You mentioned that Russia's goal is to destroy energy grids, and — as some U.S. officials said — to freeze Ukrainians into submission. And it seems that the winter is almost over, and Russia seems to be failing to achieve at least this goal to freeze Ukrainians to submission. Does it give you some grounds for optimism and do you think that the darkest days are behind us?

Granholm: Well, I certainly hope so, and it definitely gives me grounds for optimism. It makes … you know, looking at how Ukraine, Ukrainian people have had steel injected into their spines … I mean they have spines of steel. And perhaps that makes us steel as well, our spines full of steel to be able to support such courage and determination to not give up their territory, to not give up their nation.

So I should say Russia's goal is not just to destroy. It's to take back, right? To take the land to take the country. And, you know, we're not … We, the united members of this coalition, are not going to allow that to happen. And we want to support Ukraine and its territorial integrity. And the people have been so fierce in their determination to not allow their land to be taken.

VOA: Recently, Canadian Cameco Corporation announced a major uranium deal with Ukraine Energoatom and that should meet Ukraine's nuclear fuel needs until 2035. How significant do you think this is? And was there any cooperation or coordination between the United States and Canada on this? I know you were talking about the transition to renewable energy. But right now, Ukraine still has many nuclear reactors?

Granholm: Absolutely. In the immediate, it's really important to get power right and clean power is very important. Ukraine has been a leader in nuclear energy. Obviously, Zaporizhzhia is the biggest nuclear power plant in all of Europe. Moving into the future, I think a lot of the Central Eastern European countries are very interested in small modular reactors, next generation nuclear, as well as some of the bigger reactors as well. But they don't want to be under the thumb of Russian reactors or Russian uranium.

And so, this is the, I think, the next generation of questions. We just saw an agreement with Poland for example, to be able to have a series of three reactors that are built in partnership with Westinghouse. We've got to make sure that those reactors are fed, but not by Russian uranium.

VOA: I want to come back to something that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation: that Ukraine wants to change their power grid. And, of course, war is a tremendous tragedy, but it also creates some opportunity to build better and to build something new. How do you think the United States can help Ukraine with reconstruction efforts, and with efforts to actually build something better in the energy sector with new technology and to abandon the Soviet era technology?

Granholm: Yeah, we are very excited about the possibility of working with Ukraine. In fact, I've been working with minister [Herman] Haluschenko, who is my counterpart in Ukraine, energy minister, who is very interested in working with … our labs, for example the National Renewable Energy Lab, has been doing these roadmaps for countries that have expressed interest in going 100 percent renewable for example, 100 percent clean, zero carbon emitting. And we want to work with Ukraine on its desires to be able to do that to provide technical roadmaps on how to get there.

What's the best way if you incorporate all of the assets that Ukraine has? How much solar, how much wind, how much hydroelectric power, how much nuclear power? What's the mix that's good for Ukraine and lives up to what Ukraine wants? We are very eager to partner on that future road map and on any assistance that we can to allow Ukraine to live up to its own ambition.

VOA: Given the current state of the power grid, do you think Ukraine still has potential?

Granholm: Totally, yes. … If you're going to build back, let's build back in a way that allows you to be resilient and to have energy security. And energy security, of course, through clean, which is exactly what President Zelenskyy has said he wants to do. And so, we stand totally ready and we're working already on the plans with Ukraine so that once this is over, you can build that future for Ukraine and for Ukraine's economy as well. But most importantly, for Ukraine's own security to be energy independent.