“It’s our job to bring light”: How Ukrainian engineers are fighting to keep the power grid alive

“It’s our job to bring light”: How Ukrainian engineers are fighting to keep the power grid alive

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On New Year’s Eve, Andrii Touinda looked out the window of his Kiev apartment at the Russian cruise missiles flying overhead and wondered if he would have to spend another night repairing damaged power stations to keep the Ukrainian capital’s lighting and heating running to keep.

“I have my whole team ready on the other end of my phone, they are Marvel superheroes,” said the maintenance engineer at DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company. “It is our job to bring light to people and to do the impossible.”

In the past three months, since Ukrainian counter-offensives pushed back Russia’s ground forces in the northeast and south, Moscow has opened up a deadly second front: relentless volleys of cruise missiles and drones aimed at destroying Ukraine’s power grid and plunging millions of civilians into the freezing winter darkness.

General Valery Zaluzhnyi, Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, warned in an interview with The Economist in December that the destruction of the power grid could undermine public morale and Ukraine’s ability to keep fighting. A violent wave of airstrikes on November 23, when Russia deployed 70 cruise missiles, even led to rolling power outages in neighboring Moldova, which is connected to Ukraine’s power grid.

“The attacks are planned and carried out not only by the Russian military, but also by Russian energy specialists,” said Volodymyr Kudrytskiy, CEO of Ukrenegro, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company.

Russian engineers knew Ukraine’s energy grid “like the back of their hand” because it was connected to their country’s system before the invasion last February, Kudrytskiy said. But Ukrainian engineers now have a better understanding of Russian strategy and can take measures “aimed at minimizing the consequences of the attacks,” he added.

Map of Ukraine's vulnerable power grid

Ukrainian officials say Russia has been waging a systematic campaign focused on destroying the transformers that sit at key nodes of the power grid’s distribution system, rather than the power plants themselves.

The aim was to break up the grid into isolated islands and prevent the flow of electricity between regions, energy experts said. Much of the country’s power generation capacity is in the west, reaching the center and east via high-voltage transmission lines.

“All the equipment is outdoors, so it’s pretty easy to hit them,” said Maxim Timchenko, managing director of DTEK. “In the event of a direct hit, the equipment can no longer be saved.”

Keeping the system running as winter sets in has become a race against time for Ukraine and its western allies. The first step was to protect 50 key locations with western-supplied air defense systems such as Nasams surface-to-air missiles.

Workers repair high-voltage power lines damaged by Russian missile attacks near Odessa © Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty Images

The strategy is a compromise, as otherwise the resources could be used to protect troops on the front line. As a result, older World War II-style tactics were also used, such as using machine guns to shoot down drones selected with searchlights in the night sky. “It’s a simple defense system, but it can be effective against slow-flying drones,” said a Ukrainian defense adviser.

The second pillar of Ukraine’s strategy is to anticipate attacks and learn from the successful ones. Industry leaders are holding daily Zoom meetings with the Department of Energy and other government colleagues to stay current on the rapidly evolving conflict.

To reduce the system’s vulnerability, the grace period of up to 60 minutes provided by Ukraine’s warning systems is being used to shut down the system with temporary power outages, Timchenko said. If any missiles get through, “we’ll adjust the system and air defenses. . . so that we are better protected”.

The third dimension is repair. Much of Ukraine’s network uses the old Soviet system. This operates at higher voltages than the EU, making it incompatible with many western devices which cannot then be used to replace damaged equipment.

The shortage is most serious for 750 kV transformers, each of which weighs up to 200 tons. Although some replacement vehicles were procured from ex-communist countries like Lithuania, most of those destroyed have to be rebuilt.

A Lviv restaurant uses a generator during a power outage after a Russian missile attack © Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

“In the first eight months of the war, Ukraine did not suffer so much, since we had a large stock of it [spare] Transformers,” said Kudrytskiy. “Now they are a vital necessity.”

More than 40 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure was damaged in the Russian attacks. But despite blackouts, Ukrainian engineers have proven extremely adept at routing power around handicapped parts of the power grid.

At night, Kiev’s restaurants that stay open cast flecks of light across the darkened streets. Some industrial users in the center of the country, such as iron ore producer Ferrexpo, have even partially resumed production.

“I was very impressed with how the country was able to keep the system running,” said Denys Sakva, an energy analyst at Dragon Capital, a Kyiv-based investment management firm.

After a mild December, however, temperatures drop sharply. On Friday Ukrenegro appealed to the civilian population to save electricity. With three months to go until the official end of winter on April 1st, the government has announced that emergency blackouts could be reintroduced.

Meanwhile, Moscow continues to adjust its strategy. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned Russia not to use drone swarms to “exhaust” Ukraine’s air defenses, and it may also shift launch sites to bypass established defense lines. Western intelligence agencies have warned that Iran could supply Russia with ballistic missiles and more Shahed drones to replenish Moscow’s depleted stockpile of precision weapons.

“The power grid is like a body: everything is connected and if one part is damaged, it’s felt everywhere,” said Touinda. “I’m not afraid, but it’s getting harder and harder to deal with all the damage.”

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