With domestic coal production in deep trouble, nuclear energy going nowhere, and policy-makers considering fundamental policy shifts in support of renewables, Ukraine’s power sector is poised for a rapid shift toward lower-carbon energy.
In the 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country’s electricity sector “was rolling down the hill without a clear vision for the future,” Energy Post reports. “Now everything is about to change. Multiple pressures and opportunities have merged to open up a new pathway for the country: Ukraine can get on board of Europe’s grand energy transition by starting a profound transformation of its power sector.”
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An early step in that shift is coming from the country’s transmission service operator (TSO), Ukrenergo, with CEO Vsevolod Kovalchuk signing an agreement last June that called for his country to fully integrate with the pan-European power grid through the European Network of Transmission Systems Operators (ENTSO-E) by 2025. Previously, Kovalchuk had “presented a summary of research and analysis of necessary steps for the integration of solar and wind capacities in Ukraine, along with the problems that need to be addressed in the process of variable renewable energy sources (VRES) deployment,” recalls Energy Post correspondent Oleg Savitsky.
That assessment came with a projection that Ukraine could double its installed renewables capacity from 1.5 to 3.0 gigawatts by 2019, after two years of growth driven by subsidies for utility-scale solar.
The next critical step was Ukraine’s February, 2018 decision to join the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). That move that will give it easier access to renewable energy deployment expertise, as well as “an opportunity to participate in specialized research run by the IRENA Secretariat to find effective ways to reduce its dependence on coal and other fossil fuels.”
IRENA apparently sees massive potential in that direction: in 2017, the agency estimated the country’s potential at 70 GW for solar and 320 GW for wind, along with the “best potential in Southeast Europe for biomass/biogas power generation”—all of which “is also getting increasingly recognized by investors,” Savitsky states.
On June 22, as well, the mayor of Zhytomyr, Ukraine signed a memorandum of cooperation with 350.org that commits the city to a 100% renewable electricity transition by 2050—a first for any city in the Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia region, notes a 350.org press release.
While Ukraine shifts emphasis to renewables, Energy Post says coal’s star has almost certainly set, since “the occupation of the Donbass region, the former heartland of coal, has resulted in an abrupt and irreversible decline of domestic coal mining and new energy security threats.”
Since 2014, Savitsky reports, “the region has been ravaged by ongoing military conflict and paramilitary pillage of infrastructure, as a result of which many coal mines are now flooded.” With so much domestic production shuttered, “dependency on coal imports is continuously rising,” most recently doubling in 2017 from 2016 levels. And 56% of these imports come from Russia.
Even in the absence of ongoing geopolitical struggle, he adds, most of Ukraine’s antiquated coal power plants produce too much dust, sulphur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen to continue operating under rules the country accepted as a new member of the European Union. “Even without a carbon tax, these plants are increasingly becoming stranded assets.”
The country’s nuclear power industry is likewise in eclipse, remaining heavily dependent on Russia despite some considerable fuel diversification efforts and new supply contracts with Westinghouse. Ukraine is also seeing the after-effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, including a €1.5-billion effort to dismantle the remnants of a melted-down reactor, mounting costs for treatment and long-term storage of nuclear waste and spent fuel, and the additional price tag to modernize and improve safety at other nuclear plants undergoing “controversial” refurbishments.
Despite the new shift in momentum, Energy Post cautions that “quick and profound decarbonization of Ukraine’s power sector” will be difficult. It will depend on coherent policies—especially to ensure a “transparent, fair, and competitive electricity market”—as well as strategic investment to modernize transmission and distribution grids to render them capable of integrating variable renewables.
Also critical to completing Ukraine’s successful transition to renewables will be “consistent support and stewardship from the European Commission.” But that support will pay huge dividends, given Ukraine’s current status as one of the world’s top 30 greenhouse gas emitters.