As winter cold sets in in Ukraine, there are growing fears that Russia will soon resume large-scale attacks on the power grid, repeating a tactic it used last year to try to break the will Ukrainians by plunging them into cold and darkness.
Those fears are compounded by what Ukrainian experts and current and former officials see as a more fragile energy system than it was a year ago. In interviews, they described power plants still hobbled by last winter’s Russian attacks, unfinished repairs to substations and shortages of critical equipment like transformers. And the snow has already started to fall.
Ukrainian authorities have refused to provide detailed data on the current state of the power grid, saying it is wartime sensitive information. But experts say the situation has only slightly improved since United Nations report published this summer, estimated that by the end of April Ukraine’s total production capacity had fallen to half its pre-war level.
“Not much has changed since then,” Victoria Voytsitska, a former MP and leading member of the Ukrainian Parliament’s energy committee, said in an interview. “We are in a much worse situation than last year.”
The situation looks particularly bleak for thermal power plants, which run on coal or gas and are a key part of Ukraine’s energy mix to meet demand during peak consumption periods, experts say.
The Ukrainian government declares The plants will provide 4.5 gigawatts of electricity this winter, a third of the country’s pre-war production, according to the United Nations. This is the same capacity the organization estimated this summer, suggesting that repair work has made little progress since then.
To be sure, Ukraine has significantly increased its ability to shoot down Russian missiles and drones before they approach the power grid. The country now has powerful air defense systems, and Ukrainian officials say fortifications have been erected around critical energy facilities.
“On the one hand, we are more vulnerable,” said German Galushchenko, Ukraine’s energy minister. “On the other hand, we are better prepared.”
But some experts and lawmakers say the fortifications have not been tested and point out that in the event of successful attacks, the country’s energy system will have little backup in terms of supplies and equipment, making it will make it more likely to fail.
While Moscow has yet to resume large-scale missile strikes, Ukrainian officials have recently noticed a surge in drone attacks on the power grid. Saturday, an attack in the southern region of Odessa left some 2,000 families without power for several hours.
These strikes come as temperatures plummet in Ukraine. Several cities have already received snow, and the capital, kyiv, received its first flakes on Tuesday.
Memories of Russia’s air campaign against the power grid last winter still haunt Ukraine.
Moscow launched more than 1,200 missiles and drones against energy installations between October 2022 and April 2023, according to Ukrenergo, the national electricity operator of Ukraine. By mid-November, nearly half of the country’s power grid was out of service, plunging the population into cold and darkness.
Residents of kyiv, the capital, were sometimes forced to rely on flashlights at night and planned for a possible evacuation of the city.
“We have had a lot of destruction,” Mr. Galushchenko said during a recent interview at his ministry in kyiv. He sat in a conference room where two large posters showed images of broken power lines and blown transformers the size of houses.
Ukraine managed to survive the assaults thanks to the air defense systems of Western allies that allowed it to intercept more Russian missiles, the round-the-clock work of engineers to repair vital equipment, and the ingenuity of locals in terms of energy saving.
But the attacks left a scar on the power grid, according to the Kyiv School of Economics estimating total damage at $8.8 billion from June this year.
Mr. Galushchenko said authorities had invested more than 10 billion Ukrainian hryvnias, or about $280 million, to repair what they could before another winter arrived. But like other officials, he recognized that a rapid return to prewar levels was out of reach.
“It is impossible to fully restore energy facilities built over decades in less than a year,” said Alexei Kucherenko, deputy chairman of the Parliament’s energy committee.
Volodymyr Kudritskyi, director of Ukrenergo, said the country had rehabilitated the “low-hanging fruit” – facilities that suffered the least damage – but that several power plants had only been partially repaired.
A major challenge has been finding transformers that transmit electricity from power plants to homes, he said. Last winter, Russia damaged or destroyed nearly half of Ukraine’s high-voltage transformers, according to the United Nations.
Ukrenergo searched for transformers around the world. But they can take a year to produce, meaning only a limited number have likely been delivered so far.
Mr. Kudritskyi declined to say how many new transformers his company had received. But he acknowledged in an interview last week that “the safety margin, or safety buffer, is smaller this year if we’re talking about operating equipment.”
The transformers are so vital that some have been stored across Ukraine’s borders, in allied countries, to avoid being targeted by Russia before winter, according to Energy Committee member Inna Sovsun of Parliament.
Another challenge facing Ukraine’s power grid is the state of its thermal power plants. Although most of the country’s electricity is generated by nuclear power, thermal power plants provide the additional generation capacity needed to meet peak demand.
All of Ukraine’s thermal power plants were damaged by Russian strikes last year, according to the United Nations. Repair work has been delayed, several experts said in interviews, in part because Ukraine has struggled to find investors willing to finance highly polluting factories.
Roman Nitsovych, research director at DiXi Group, a Ukrainian energy sector think tank, said he estimated the repair work had restored a fifth of the plant capacity lost to damage or of the Russian occupation.
Figures provided by Ukraine’s Energy Ministry suggest a slightly more critical situation. Although the ministry claims to have exceeded its repair targets, only 1.3 gigawatts of capacity has been restored at thermal plants, or about 15 percent of the total loss.
Ukraine’s production capacity appears crippled to the point that some analysts wonder whether the country will be able to avoid blackouts this winter, even if Russia does not attack.
Viktor Kurtiev, director of Metropoliya, an energy consulting firm, estimates that Ukraine could be short of 1.5 gigawatts during the peak winter consumption period, the amount needed to provide electricity to 10,000 homes for a month, “without taking into account the new Russian strikes”. .”
“If the power grid is hit again, these deficits will increase, so it is unlikely that we will be able to avoid repeated power outages this winter,” Mr Kurtiev said.
Mr. Galushchenko, the energy minister, and Mr. Kudrytskyi of Ukrenergo said they were confident that the power grid’s vulnerability would be offset by the new defenses that protect it. Ukraine now uses Western-supplied Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which it did not have at the start of last winter and which have proven effective in protecting the skies over Kiev.
“The best solution for us is air defenses,” Galushchenko said. He added that mobile brigades were now operating near crucial energy installations to shoot down drones.
Ukraine has also built ramparts around the facilities to protect them from direct impacts or debris from missiles and drones. Ms Sovsun, the MP, described it as a multi-layered system including sandbags, concrete walls and cages filled with rocks.
It remains to be seen how effective these fortifications will prove to be in protecting against attacks, and it is unclear how many installations across the country will benefit from them.
“We’ll see how it works,” Mr. Galushchenko said with a smile.
Daria Mitiuk reports contributed.