Just a few hours before massed Russian troops and missiles surged over borders with deadly force last month, Ukraine’s grid operator opened a series of high-voltage breakers, disconnecting the nation’s grid from those of Belarus, Russia, and the rest of the giant UPS/IPS synchronous AC power zone controlled from Moscow. It was supposed to be a 72-hour test, and going ahead under the tense circumstances was a bold and risky gambit, admits Ukrenergo CEO Volodymyr Kudrytskyi.
“We heard a lot of opinions in the expert community, as well as among politicians that it is very dangerous to disconnect from Russia and Belarus, that the Ukrainian energy system will not be able to function independently for a long time,” recalled Kudrytskyi in an interview published yesterday by nonprofit Ukraine-based news outlet European Pravda.
Ukraine’s grid held, even as Russia damaged substations, lines, and generators—a remarkable and heroic (though largely unheralded) achievement. As recently as November, generation shortfalls had prompted Kyiv’s mayor to voice fears of rolling blackouts. Tight coal and gas reserves continued to bite throughout the winter.
“We now have a single energy circulatory system from Lisbon to Mariupol.”
—Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Still, operating as an electrical island left Ukraine more vulnerable to Russia’s army, including its cyberwarriors. Like a boxer freed from an opponent's embrace, Russian forces were free to swing at Ukraine’s newly isolated grid without fear of battle-induced blackouts cascading across into Russia.
Early this month the aggressors initiated the “targeted destruction” of power plants, substations, and lines, prompting Ukrenergo to tag its daily social media updates with the hashtag “EnergyFront.”
But through it all Ukrenergo and its European colleagues were quietly working on an emergency support scheme: uniting Ukraine’s grid with those of the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E)—a continuous zone of synchronized AC power connecting most of continental Europe.
On Wednesday they made it happen, closing breakers along Ukraine’s southern border and synchronizing its power system with the 50-hertz electromagnetic wave traversing ENTSO-E’s wires. The move simultaneously looped in Moldova.
The scale of the achievement is hard to overstate, according to Ukrenergo’s CEO. “We have guaranteed ourselves an uninterrupted power supply for weeks and months,” said Kudrytskyi yesterday.
“We are no longer alone,” is how President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it on Wednesday, declaring Ukraine part of the “energy Eurozone.”
If damage to power equipment creates an electrical shock in Ukraine, the rest of the European network—which generates over 20 times more power than Ukraine—should hold power steady.
“We now have a single energy circulatory system from Lisbon to Mariupol,” said Zelenskyy, evoking the Black Sea port city that Russian forces have brutally shelled for over two weeks. (Though, notwithstanding the president's potent rhetoric, damage to the circuits around Mariupol continued to keep its residents cold and in the dark.)
Synchronization with the European grid marked a hasty culmination of a process that began in 2017 and was expected to take at least another year. Essentially, ENTSO-E members took extraordinary defensive measures—and took on risks to their own systems—to make up for as-yet-uncompleted upgrades to Ukraine’s infrastructure, operating procedures, and markets.
Even if the risk is small, a massive outage in Ukraine could theoretically cascade into the European grid. Accepting that risk is “almost unprecedented” according to Tomas Jermalavičius, an Estonian security expert who has studied ongoing efforts by the former Soviet republics in the Baltics to break away from the Russian grid.
The result is an electrical backstop to help sustain Ukraine’s defenders and its civilian population. Ukraine can now import up to 2 gigawatts of European power over links from Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, enabling it to conserve domestic reserves of coal and hydropower.
And if damage to power equipment creates an electrical shock in Ukraine, the rest of the European network—which generates over 20 times more power than Ukraine—should hold power steady at 50 hertz across the entire zone.
“It was almost heroic to come and save Ukraine in this way,” Jermalavičius told IEEE Spectrum yesterday.
Jermalavičius says the situation also has helped the Baltic states on Russia’s far western flank: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. He is one of several experts who say Russia’s war on Ukraine and Ukraine’s accelerated synchronization with Europe improves prospects for the Baltics' eventual disconnection from the Russian grid.
The Baltic states are NATO and European Union members. And it’s been seven years since IEEE Spectrum covered the Baltics' aspirations in 2015. Yet they are not scheduled to disconnect from Russia's grid and connect to Europe’s until 2025.
Jermalavičius, head of studies for the International Centre for for Defence and Security, based in Tallinn, has been expressing concern about the political disunity that has slowed the Baltics’ progress. All three countries have sizable Russian-speaking populations, and their leaders face both anti-European and pro-Russian opposition.
“Lithuania and the other Baltic states are following the plan, and it is 2025.”
—Romas Švedas, Vilnius University
In a December 2021 newspaper commentary, Jermalavičius noted that a crucial test of the Baltics’ ability to operate as an electrical island was scrubbed in 2019 amid intergovernmental squabbling.
Meanwhile, Russia has moved quickly to secure its own grid, adding transmission lines east of the Baltics and power plants in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. That means it could unilaterally unplug the Baltics at any time.
“The sheer possibility of such a decision, and the technical conditions enabling it, should be sending shivers down the spines of the Baltic governments,” wrote Jermalavičius, warning of “severe” impacts on security if the entire synchronization project “fell apart in the final stretches.”
Fast-forward three months, however, and unity has flowered in the Baltics. On 2 March Latvia and Estonia agreed to slash power imports from Russia, which Lithuania did in 2020. “With Russia’s attack on Ukraine these political issues are receding into the background. You see the unity of the Baltics in supporting Ukraine, and also in understanding Russia’s threat in all its dimensions,” Jermalavičius told IEEE Spectrum yesterday.
The last big Baltic upgrade underway to prepare for synchronization is construction of a second connection between Poland and Lithuania (and thus between the Baltics and Europe). Last year Polish authorities hinted that the so-called Harmony Link cable might not be ready until 2026 or 2027. Now it looks more likely that they will hit their 2025 deadline.
“Lithuania and the other Baltic states are following the plan, and it is 2025. There are technical requirements that should be completed,” said Romas Švedas, a former Lithuanian diplomat and vice minister of energy, in a brief interview with IEEE Spectrum.
Jermalavičius thinks they might move faster, citing an indication from a recent meeting of regional energy ministers that acceleration of the Baltics’ grid switch was on the table.
He noted that Lithuania’s grid operator, Litgrid, has run promising tests without that second line. Litgrid, he said, demonstrated in December that Lithuania can operate as an isolated grid. That test also showed that the sole operating link between Lithuania with Poland—a high-voltage direct current or HVDC line—can deftly switch to AC mode to open a more powerful synchronous connection.
Lithuania’s minister of energy, Dainius Kreivys, called it a “geopolitical turning point.”
This article appears in the June 2022 print issue as “Ukraine Secures Its Grid by Connecting With Europe.”
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Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.