Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s energy sector have escalated again as winter sets in

As temperatures drop across Ukraine, Russia's attacks on energy infrastructure have intensified

For the second consecutive winter, Russia has increased military attacks on Ukraine’s energy system, significantly undermining the security of the country's power supply. The bombing campaign – which lasted throughout the 2022/23 heating season and resumed in recent months – has targeted a wide range of energy infrastructure, from power plants to oil refineries and district heating facilities. The World Bank recently estimated that Ukraine’s energy sector has sustained USD 12 billion in damages during the war.

In light of Russia’s continued attacks, safeguarding power system resilience and boosting electricity security are key priorities for Ukraine. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which has deepened its relationship with Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, is stepping up to provide support – sharing data and analysis, and working directly with policy makers as they look to both address the country’s immediate energy needs and develop plans for the longer term.

Russia’s initial offensive against Ukraine’s energy system resulted in widespread destruction. In October 2022, Ukraine’s energy minister said that about 30% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure appeared to have been attacked in a single day, and during the following seven months, Russia used missiles and drones to target energy facilities across the country, leaving no thermal or hydro power plant untouched. As a result, some areas only had access to electricity, heating and the internet for a few hours a day, and hospitals, businesses and households had to turn to expensive diesel generators for backup. More than 50% of Ukraine’s power infrastructure was damaged, according to the World Bank. 

Ukraine made significant efforts to improve energy security ahead of this winter. Over the spring and summer, power utilities – aided by significant grants, loans and investment from a wide range of governments, multilateral donors and the private sector – undertook the biggest energy infrastructure repair and maintenance campaign in the country’s history. The Ukrainian government also strengthened its air defence systems and invested in passive defence measures such as engineering fortifications to further protect energy infrastructure.

Other steps were taken in parallel to help millions of people and businesses in Ukraine reliably keep the lights on and stay warm. Ukraine’s disconnection from Russia’s power system and synchronisation with Continental Europe was made permanent in November 2023, and operators of Continental Europe’s transmission system decided to raise the commercial capacity limit for electricity imports. This will allow Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s transmission system operator, to better absorb shocks to the system, such as further attacks or spikes in consumption driven by colder temperatures.

However, this winter is still set to be extremely challenging. Not all of Ukraine’s energy facilities could be fully restored by the start of the 2023/24 heating season – especially given difficulties securing financing to repair coal-based generation and sourcing high-power autotransformers, a critical component of Ukraine’s Soviet-legacy power system. Meanwhile, new strikes are causing fresh damage. A long-lasting cold snap would also pose risks; milder-than-normal temperatures in 2022/23 significantly helped the country's efforts to keep power and heating supplied to its citizens

The IEA is partnering with Ukraine as it bolsters its energy security

The IEA and many of our member countries are working closely with Ukraine to help the country’s energy system recover from Russia’s attacks and lay the groundwork for its transition to a secure and sustainable energy future.

The IEA and Ukraine have a long history of collaboration dating back to 2007, and Ukraine officially joined the IEA Family as an Association country in July 2022. A two-year Joint Work Programme signed in December 2022 laid out how the IEA could further help Ukraine meet its short- and long-term energy objectives. Over the past year, the IEA and Ukraine have strengthened their cooperation, deepening the sharing of energy data, analysis and best practices as Ukraine’s government works to advance reconstruction, build a more decentralised power system less vulnerable to Russia’s attacks, further integrate its energy system with the European Union, and drive down carbon emissions, as reflected in its new 2050 National Energy Strategy. Ukraine's Ministry of Energy will send a delegation to the IEA's Ministerial Meeting next month, which will take stock of the latest developments in energy markets, policies and transitions.

As part of its workstream on Power System Security, the IEA also led three workshops with Ukrainian stakeholders, including one in Kyiv during an IEA team visit in October. These workshops had a strong focus on distributed energy resources as a route to a more secure and modernised power system based on domestic, renewable resources, in line with Ukraine’s energy priorities. 

Distributed energy resources have a major role to play

There are many potential benefits to leveraging distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar PV in Ukraine. With the displacement of people and industry during the war shifting demand patterns, distributed resources – which have a shorter lead-time for deployment than conventional generation – can help meet demand where it is most needed.

Distributed energy resources are not limited to rooftop solar PV, nor indeed to generation. When installed in combination with behind-the-meter battery storage, which allows consumers to store energy and use it later, there is also the potential for customers to have continued access to power following a wider grid outage. In this way, distributed energy resources not only add flexibility and empower consumers, but also lower energy security risks, since these systems are harder to target and will not cause widespread power outages if they are damaged in an attack.

Integrating more distributed energy resources would also help Ukraine meet its ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 65% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. And they present an opportunity to reduce reliance on a highly centralised Soviet-era power system, with aging infrastructure that needed to be refurbished or replaced even before the war.

However, incorporating more distributed energy resources requires a major paradigm shift for system planners, operators and regulators. It calls for substantial investment in smart grid technologies, enhanced regulation, and improved market design to unlock their full potential. Active management is needed to support strong growth in the volume of distributed energy resources without compromising the security of the power system.

Appropriate and targeted policies such as tariff design, smart metering and technical standards are essential to ensure that distributed energy resources are incorporated in a system-friendly manner. Alignment with EU legislation could help Ukraine achieve this goal – aiding in the regulation and market design of a more modern power system while providing the foundation for Ukraine’s full energy integration with the European Union in the future.

Ukraine’s energy transition and improving security go hand in hand

Ukraine’s government has emphasised that its energy recovery hinges on strong planning for its net zero future. The country’s 2050 National Energy Strategy, adopted in May 2023, laid out a target of decarbonising the country’s energy sector by mid-century. Work with strategic partners, who are using modelling to develop transition pathways across key economic sectors, is currently underway. Ukraine is also actively developing a National Energy and Climate Plan through 2030, which will lay out ways to prioritise decarbonisation and the green transition during the country’s recovery. 

Significant investment will be needed to achieve these ambitious goals, requiring greater international financing and an expansion of war risk insurance to incentivise private sector investment in Ukrainian energy projects. Tariff reform and a strong regulatory framework will also be central to enabling Ukraine's transition to a secure and clean energy system.

Ukraine has invested heavily in preparing for this difficult winter, spending substantially on repair, reconstruction and defence. But work is just beginning to also lay the foundation for the winters that lie ahead. Strong, ongoing commitment from the international community will be crucial to ensure that Ukraine’s drive to build a modern, sustainable and secure energy system is a success.  

The IEA recently hosted workshops to support Ukraine’s energy security in Kyiv, Paris and Tbilisi through the EU4Energy Programme, which is funded by the European Union. The workshops brought together dozens of stakeholders from across the Ukrainian power sector and international experts to discuss measures to boost the integration of variable renewables – particularly distributed energy resources such as rooftop PV. The workshops explored how a modern and distributed system can provide increased resilience, the role consumers can play in rebuilding the power system from the bottom-up, and how Ukrainian stakeholders can support the modernisation and decentralisation of the power sector in Ukraine through technical, regulatory and market-based solutions.