As Ukraine Builds New Reactors, Renewables Beckon

Wind turbines and gas-fired generators are easy to build and hard to target

5 min read

A worker holds a Ukrainian flag atop a wind turbine at the DTEK Renewables Tyligulska wind farm.

Distributed renewable power sources like wind turbines could make Ukraine’s grid more resilient during the ongoing war.

DTEK Renewables

Earlier in April, the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv was at Ukraine’s Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plant, celebrating the first concrete poured for the first of two U.S.-designed AP1000 nuclear reactors to be built at the site.It’s just the start of Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power firm’s investment plans. In June, Energoatom says it will start building two further VVER reactors at Khmelnytskyi, which will double the site’s complement of Russian-designed equipment.

Energoatom’s costly plans for more centralized power equipment have sparked alarm among independent energy experts in Ukraine. What Ukraine needs and can afford during wartime, they argue, is a large number of smaller power plants—generators that are relatively cheap, quick to build, less reliant on the national transmission grid, and harder for Russian missiles and drones to destroy.

Local utilities and international donors have focused on small-to-medium-size gas-fired turbine and engine generators, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says more such assistance will come thanks to the US $61 billion aid package just signed by President Biden. Oleksandr Kharchenko, who runs the Kyiv-based Energy Industry Research Center, says gas-fired generators are quick to install and plug into Ukraine’s domestic natural gas and robust pipeline network. “You need something which can switch on and work when you need it,” he says.

But others are also pushing renewable energy, which can also be quick to install. DTEK, Ukraine’s largest commercial power generator, completed its first wind farm in May 2023 near Mykolaiv after less than 10 months of construction.

The destruction wrought by Russia’s intensified attacks on Ukraine’s power system in recent weeks displays the advantage of distributed energy in wartime, according to DTEK executive director Dmytro Sakharuk.

Russia destroyed or severely damaged five out of six of DTEK’s big thermal power plants. “They damaged transformers, generators, turbines, and auxiliary equipment. It’s a total mess right now. Burned land basically,” said Sakharuk in early April.

Overhead photograph of workers in hard hats moving through rubble and destroyed equipment.DTEK employees examine the damage to a power station after Russian attacks in March 2024.DTEK

In contrast, Sakharuk said it would require many more missiles and drones to take out more distributed forms of generation, such as a wind farm. He says that saved Odesa, which early in April had some limited power supply almost uniquely thanks to neighboring wind and solar plants. “Crucial infrastructure and households get electricity just because the wind blows and the sun shines. Huge water pumps and hospitals are powered by solar and wind energy,” said Sakharuk.

Advocates push for distributed power generation

DTEK is one of several firms trying to add more wind power to Ukraine’s grid as the war rages. It plans to start building a second phase of its 114-megawatt Tyligulska wind farmduring the second half of 2024, to expand its capacity to 500 MW, and it says the added turbines could start connecting to the grid by the end of this year.

Development of a second, 650-MW wind farm is underway at Poltava, and details of a third wind-farm project have not been released. A German firm, meanwhile, is developing a 1,000-MW wind farm at Chernobyl, according to The Odessa Journal.

“You need something which can switch on and work when you need it.” —Oleksandr Kharchenko, Energy Industry Research Center

The biggest challenge to constructing power generationduring war is financing, because banks and insurances companies are gun-shy. The Tyligulska wind plant’s expansion has financial backing from the European Commission and the governments of Ukraine and Denmark.

International donors have been much more willing to finance distributed gas generators. Last week USAID’s Energy Security Project for Ukraine reported that it had provided 80 gas-fired cogeneration units to heating companies in 22 municipalities and planned to provide 11 more. Their combined generating capacity of 56.5 MW will assure heat to “approximately 1 million residents and 960 social facilities,” while simultaneously powering critical infrastructure such as water-treatment plants, according to USAID.

USAID’s Energy Security Project says it also delivered 115 generators for use by Ukraine’s natural gas system operators in February and March to keep gas flowing during electricity blackouts.

In a statement sent this week to IEEE Spectrum, USAID says it will “continue and expand this work” thanks to “supplemental funds” from the aid package approved by Congress.

For the past 18 months, Kharchenko’s group at the Energy Industry Research Center has been deploying their expertise to help cities figure out what kind of gas generation they should seek out, and then to help secure financing and acquire the equipment. For the largest generators—54-MW gas turbines—they are collaborating with district heating companies, which bring both infrastructure and expertise.

While Kharchenko sees distributed gas-fired generators as Ukraine’s biggest near-term need, he says their ability to ramp up and down quickly will ultimately support the installation of more gigawatts of variable renewable energy such as wind power. He also looks forward to a day when the gas generators themselves can be run off of biogas produced from Ukraine’s copious agricultural waste, further supporting Ukraine’s ambition to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

Ukraine’s nuclear future remains unclear

There is broad support for nuclear energy to continue to play a long-term role in Ukraine’s power system. Historically, nuclear reactors supported about half of Ukraine’s power generation, and the proportion is likely higher today since Russia’s aerial barrages left Ukraine’s three operating nuclear plants unscathed. (The IAEA says multiple drones recently struck the idle Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which Russia continues to occupy.)

U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink praised Energoatom earlier this month for starting now to work on an AP1000 reactor—the first of nine that Energoatom has ordered from U.S. nuclear design and services firm Westinghouse Energy. “This is an investment that will eventually benefit about 17 million Ukrainians and 800 businesses. I just want to say it’s a smart and important step that could have been easily overlooked in the context of the immediate war needs,” said Brink, as Ukraine’s energy minister, the CEO of Westinghouse, and the CEO of Energoatom looked on.

Independent Ukrainian energy professionals have issued some withering critiques of Energoatom’s projects and planned investments.

Nikolai Steinberg, an éminence grise of Ukraine’s nuclear energy establishment, raised a host of questions about the pair of VVERs slated for Khmelnytskyi in a recent Facebook post. Energoatom plans to build the plants using equipment from a canceled VVER project in Bulgaria. That, wrote Steinberg, raised some troubling questions. He noted, for example, that the base VVER design dates back to the early 1970s, and the model slated for Bulgaria lacks safety systems added after the Fukushima reactor meltdowns in Japan.

“Nuclear is an important part of our energy pipeline, but it’s not a focus for now.” —Oleksandr Kharchenko, Energy Industry Research Center

Vitaly Shilan, a member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and former head of personnel for one of the country’s power-transmission design institutes, wrote in a blog post this month that Ukraine lacked the resources to construct nuclear plants, which cost at least $8 billion per unit. Ukraine will build more nuclear capacity, wrote Shilan, ”after putting into operation our factories for the production of cartridges, shells, drones, missiles and everything else that is necessary for the armed forces at the front and that Ukraine itself can produce.”

Shilan also cited the thousands of “highly qualified workers” required to build nuclear power plants. “Currently, Ukraine is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, especially welders, fitters, electricians, and adjusters,” wrote Shilan. Further stretching the country’s human resources, he wrote, could threaten Ukraine’s ability to keep repairing and replacing equipment targeted by Russia and thus keep the lights on.

Kharchenko echoes Shilan’s views. “Nuclear is an important part of our energy pipeline, but it’s not a focus for now. We are very limited in funding, in human resources. We need to focus on something which can be delivered soon,” he says.

Spectrum requested further details from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv regarding the logic of nuclear power plant construction during wartime, but did not receive a response by press time. Energoatom declined to comment after a similar request, telling Spectrum that only CEO Petro Kotin could respond and that he was unavailable.

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