Ukraine can be the solution to Europe’s energy anxiety

Ukraine can be the solution to Europe’s energy anxiety

From power blackouts in France to gas shortages in Germany, Europe is experiencing heightened uncertainty regarding its energy security. Last week, just after 20:00, about 65,000 Parisian households were plunged into darkness during a blackout mostly affecting the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 14th arrondissements. Some homes were reconnected after only 20 minutes of interruption, but it was well into the night when the last affected areas in the historic centre were brought back on the grid.

Online, wild speculation regarding the causes of the power outage was fuelled by a greater European anxiety about the capabilities and security of the European power grid following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the associated energy disruptions across the continent.The event was deemed serious enough to put the French government on “high alert”, with president Emmanuel Macron warning against “fear mongering”. Even so, the incident serves to increase awareness of the fragility of Europe’s power grid in the middle of winter as a murderous war rages on.

European gridlock

Unlike its neighbour Germany, France benefits from comparatively good energy security, thanks to the country’s use of nuclear power. Germany, on the other hand, decided to shut down its three remaining nuclear plants earlier this year, despite being the European country most dependent on Russian gas. The decision drew widespread condemnation from across the continent and left Germany unable to pull its own weight in terms of electrical power.

Because of such missteps, the EU-wide synchronisation of the pan-European grid is becoming increasingly unable to compensate for energy shortages in one country or another, as the EU Commission’s 2017 “Electricity Balancing Guideline” had envisioned. While the idea of a pan-European grid remains solid, new sources of energy splicing are needed to bring the grid to full capacity. Such a new influx of power could come from a perhaps surprising source: Ukraine. Even if its role as an electricity exporter has taken a temporary hit due to Russian attacks on its critical infrastructure, Ukraine remains one of Europe’s most important energy producers and could act as a game changer to alleviate the EU’s power uncertainties.

At the time of the invasion, Ukraine was still connected, as it always has been, to the Russian power network. Kyiv had already been working towards linking up with the European grid since 2017 but substantial work still remained–yet the issue was solved much sooner than many had anticipated, with the Ukrainian grid being linked to and synchronised with the EU’s at record speed this spring, with engineers completing “a year’s work in two weeks”. This swift action gave Ukraine access to Europe’s energy resources when Kyiv needed it most, but also allowed Ukraine to begin exporting power to the EU and drawing in much-needed revenue.

A rush on renewables

Even after the beginning of the war, Ukraine planned to export up to 2.5GW of energy beginning in 2023. Given the escalation in Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in recent weeks, this goal will require ambitious infrastructure rebuilding to achieve, but remains an important objective with benefits for both Kyiv and its European partners. The implications of a strong Ukrainian presence on the European energy market are not only geopolitical, but would also help to further the continent’s climate agenda, given the massive renewable energy potential held by the country.

Before the war, Ukraine experienced something of a gold rush with regards to renewable energy, with numerous foreign investors eager to join the fray. The relatively low price of land in Ukraine makes it a good place to build wind and solar farms, both of which require large swaths of land to function. What’s more, some sparsely populated areas of Ukraine have high wind speeds making them ideal candidates for onshore wind development, while the country also has above-average solar irradiation, more than current industry leaders in Europe.

“The sun in Ukraine is as good as anything in Florida, Louisiana or Texas or southern California”, Canadian-Ukrainian energy entrepreneur Michael Yurkovich has underlined, highlighting the fact that Ukraine is one of the top six countries in the world in terms of solar radiation. Michael Yurkovich is just one of many investors from around the world convinced by Ukraine’s solar energy potential. The Calgary-based energy firm which  Yurkovich founded, TIU Canada, was the first Canadian investor in Ukraine under the landmark Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA), signed in July 2016. Since then, TIU Canada has invested over $65 million in Ukraine’s solar energy sector, operating three solar plants that have added 56 MW of clean energy to Ukraine’s grid.

Yurkovich explained that TIU Canada decided to invest in Ukrainian solar, rather than wind power, because solar is fast to develop and install, allowing the Canadian firm to bring its first solar park from concept to commissioning in roughly a year, but the Ukrainian wind sector has also attracted ample attention from foreign investors.

Several Northern European companies have invested heavily in Ukrainian wind farms, like the Swedish Vindkraft Group or NBT, which is mainly owned by a Norwegian family. Vindkraft has been operating in Ukraine since 2011, building a 335 MW wind farm in Kherson and planning two more before having their plans derailed by war. Similarly, NBT has also seen its expansion plans hindered by the invasion, being forced to halt the construction of the Zophia Wind Farm, a 793 MW plant with more than a billion Euros in expected costs, currently kept “idle” in the Zaporizhzhya region.

Mutual benefit

The rapid grid synchronisation between Ukraine and the EU this year was done with the purpose of helping Ukraine in its hour of need. Following the war, however, Ukraine’s grid synchronisation could prove a boon for both parties.

The common network will not only help rebuild Ukraine, but will contribute towards stabilising the EU’s grid. It will also provide an opportunity for electricity producers to increase and diversify output, increasing the proportion of clean energy, and ensuring a more energetically secure Europe.

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