Ukraine is rushing to bolster its energy infrastructure ahead of winter as a renewed Russian aerial campaign starts to home in on the country’s power stations, seeking to leave its people in the dark and cold.
Over the summer Russia largely targeted Ukraine’s seaports and grain-exporting infrastructure. But in recent weeks missile and drone strikes have again started to focus on energy infrastructure, as they did last year when they caused blackouts for days. This time around Kyiv is confident it is better prepared.
At a critical electricity grid substation in northern Ukraine, a wall of concrete blocks has been erected to protect transformers. Gabions, or cylinder cages filled with rocks or sand, can be seen surrounding another nearby substation, the location of which cannot be revealed due to wartime security rules.
“We call it passive protection,” Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal told the Financial Times. He said the country was “much more prepared” after testing and improving its fortifications during Russia’s missile strikes last winter.
The defences were still “not 100 per cent effective”, Shmyhal said. But they worked “in 80 to 90 per cent of cases”, especially against drones that veer off course or whose debris falls on to critical infrastructure after being intercepted.
Last winter Russia fired more than 1,200 missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s power stations, “destroying more than 40 per cent of our electricity infrastructure, including generation and power grid”, Shmyhal said. “We repaired most of this damage.”
Across the country, sandbags and cage roofs are being installed to protect hundreds of small targets that can be taken out in a single strike and trigger a massive blackout, according to photographs provided by industry insiders and seen by the FT.
“When you have, for example, transformers, you try to protect them with big bags and sand,” said Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in charge of infrastructure. “These big bags saved us many times and they protect us from debris of drones and missiles.”
Infrastructure elements that do not need ventilation have been moved underground, said one person familiar with the effort. Damaged electricity cables can be swiftly replaced, but repairing substations and transformers takes longer. Sourcing new ones and transporting the massive structures can take months. Spare parts are being stocked across the border in allied countries, with the option to order more quickly, said one industry source.
DTEK, the country’s largest power producer, last week said that one of its generators was hit by a Russian air strike, marking the 35th attack on one of its power stations over the past year. “Repair works are under way,” the company added in a statement.
Last week, an air strike temporarily knocked out electricity in parts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Such attacks have not yet caused widespread blackouts, but officials fear they will intensify as winter approaches.
When Russian strikes knocked out a handful of critical junctions in Ukraine’s centralised Soviet-built electricity grid last winter, it destabilised the system and triggered nationwide blackouts.
Shmyhal said Ukraine had taken steps to decentralise its grid, making damage in one location less likely to affect other regions.
Maxim Timchenko, chief executive of DTEK, said that after Russia last winter “completely destroyed” a 300MW coal-burning generator unit, his company invested in building 50 scattered turbines each producing 6MW.
“They can hit one turbine but 49 would still be operating,” Timchenko said.
If massive blackouts repeat, smaller generators burning diesel and other fuels provided by allies and purchased by households as well as businesses are the last resort, like last winter.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, Ukraine sourced about half of its electricity from four nuclear power plants, the rest coming mostly from thermoelectric generators, hydroelectric power stations and renewables.
The country had to fill a big gap when its single largest source of electricity supply was taken offline in March 2022 after Russian forces occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. Still under Russian occupation and occasionally the target of missile strikes, the plant is in shutdown mode, not producing power for either side.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly warned against targeting Zaporizhzhia’s infrastructure. Fears of nuclear fallout run deep in Ukraine, site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
Another hit to Ukraine’s electricity supply came in the spring when an explosion destroyed the Kakhovka Dam, taking offline a hydroelectric plant with a capacity of 357MWh. The gap in supply was partly offset by a drop in overall industrial consumption compared with prewar times, as bombed factories were shut down.
In its preparations for winter, Kyiv is counting on western air defence systems to reduce the damage compared with last year.
“Now we have [many] more air defence systems,” Shmyhal said, while urging allies to provide more as well as the ammunition required to shoot down Russian missiles and drones.
Germany last month announced it would supply Ukraine with $1.1bn in new air defence capabilities. Spain promised additional Hawk systems.
But given that “there are more than 100 substations and high-voltage transmission stations scattered all over the country . . . realistically it is not possible to cover all the territory of Ukraine with air defences”, said Oleksandr Kharchenko, managing director of the Kyiv-based Energy Industry Research Centre.
He said rationing blackouts lasting between one and two hours would probably need to be introduced if temperatures plunged below minus 10C this winter.
“If there will be massive air strikes, I cannot predict the scale of blackouts.”