‘Soldiers on the energy front’ – Ukraine’s workers in high-risk race to repair bombed power grid

Hundreds of millions of euro needed to fix infrastructure wrecked by Russian missile and drones

Russia hit Ukraine with 4,000 bombs, missiles and drones last month, renewing its onslaught against its neighbour’s energy grid with strikes that wrecked power stations and other infrastructure and left millions of people without heat, light and running water.

It will take well over a year and hundreds of millions of euro to fix all the damage and replace destroyed facilities, leaving energy firms racing to be ready for the freezing months of next winter, and their workers facing a daunting task knowing that a repeat attack could endanger them and reduce their vital repairs to rubble at any moment.

“This is probably the first time since the beginning of the full-scale war when the Russians have managed to destroy and damage so many facilities in one or two attacks,” says Dmytro Sakharuk, executive director of Ukraine’s biggest private energy firm, Dtek, which lost 80 per cent of its generating capacity in the March strikes.

Moscow’s military has repeatedly targeted Ukraine’s power grid since launching its full invasion in February 2022, but the recent attacks were particularly intense and precise and may have exploited the country’s lack of air defence ammunition at a time when Republicans have blocked US aid to the country for several months.

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In the latest attacks on Wednesday night, Russia destroyed Kyiv’s largest power plant, the Trypilska thermal power station 50km south of the city. The plant provided electricity to millions of people in Kyiv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr regions. Ukraine’s energy ministry also said two facilities in the south had been targeted in Russian strikes, causing power outages in two regions.

The recent Russian bombardment targeted thermal and hydroelectric power plants, crucial parts of the electricity distribution network and even solar facilities.

Five of Dtek’s six power stations were damaged or destroyed, depriving Ukraine of what Sakharuk describes as “a lot” of its overall electricity output. He will not be more specific, because energy production is a sensitive wartime subject that could affect the work of everything from hospitals to ammunition factories.

Reports say Dtek facilities meet about a quarter of Ukraine’s energy needs. Three nuclear power plants on Kyiv-controlled territory supply most of the country’s electricity, even as an atomic station in Zaporizhzhia – the biggest in Europe – remains under Russian occupation.

“The destruction was significant ... We still do not understand the scale of damage as many facilities are still in rubble and we can’t reach them,” Ukrainian energy minister Herman Halushchenko told Bloomberg. “Today the situation is even more complicated, compared with last year, as we have lost a lot of hydropower production and have to conduct planned repairs of nuclear units.”

With energy production and therefore sales sharply reduced, and amid a war-induced economic crisis in Ukraine, Dtek faces a battle to fund the repairs. It may also be hard to find manufacturers with the capacity to produce specialised hardware and Ukraine is asking other countries with ex-Soviet infrastructure to supply parts.

“The Russians hit equipment like turbines, transformers and generators ... some of which have very limited availability now. We used many spare parts doing repairs to prepare for last winter, when we managed to restore 10 units that had been damaged the previous winter. We spent almost $110 million (€102 million) on those repairs, and two-thirds of those restored units have now been destroyed,” Sakharuk says.

“We estimate it will cost $300-$400 million to repair the damage done to our facilities ... Some units that can be repaired could be back on-line in nine months or a year. Others will take 18 months at least,” he adds.

“We will not be in time for winter. It’s just physically impossible. Maybe we could speed up if we put all possible resources in this direction, but we [as a country] are still too slow and bureaucratic... If your house is burning, you have to run very quickly, but in our case it’s too slow.”

Ukraine will need external help to finance the reconstruction and should look at reforming a long-standing system of large subsidies for all consumers, Sakharuk says.

“We have people and the ability to do it, plus we have experience from earlier in the war of repairing damaged equipment,” he adds, noting that Dtek, with some 50,000 staff, is one of Ukraine’s biggest employers and taxpayers.

Russia’s invasion has taken a heavy human toll on the company: four Dtek employees have been killed and 63 injured while at work, and 264 employees who joined the military have been killed and more than 750 wounded while serving. More than 60 are missing and 11 are in Russian captivity.

“The probability of being killed for someone working at a power station is much higher than for most people in Ukraine. It is very disciplined and responsible work, because energy is a vital resource. People who do this are like soldiers on the energy front,” Sakharuk says.

“The job they do is crucial for the whole country. A lack of energy can undermine the country’s ability to defend itself. That’s why they keep going and keep risking their lives, because they know that if they stop, then who else will do it?” he adds.

“The most difficult thing is to repair a power station and then see it attacked again. And to have to repair it again, knowing that another missile strike may come and destroy all your work yet again in a second. Psychologically, that is very tough.”

While Ukraine’s energy workers – and others across many sectors – repair damage caused by Russia’s invasion, Kyiv’s top officials and diplomats are trying to secure more weapons from allies that will help shield rebuilt facilities from new attacks.

“The parallel strategy [alongside reconstruction] has to be putting more air defence in place,” Sakharuk says. “Air defence is key, because the task is not only to recover, restore or build new sites, but to protect them and save them from being destroyed again.”

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