Russia’s long energy war against Ukraine

Russia’s long energy war against Ukraine

Russia’s long energy war against Ukraine
Annexing parts of eastern Ukraine also meant taking control of the largest sources of coal in the country and a big part of its natural gas reserves. (AFP)
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The war in Ukraine is a lot more than fighter jets, tanks, street fighting, and missiles darting back and forth. Many people have been displaced, injured, killed, and seen their lives turned upside down. Yes, there are some awful things happening on the ground.

What is not much discussed is how the energy systems of Ukraine are directly targeted as a war strategy. And this did not start recently. The previous Russian takeover of Crimea, and the Black Sea waters surrounding it, was also a grab at the oil and gas on the land and in the sea. Annexing parts of eastern Ukraine also meant taking control of the largest sources of coal in the country and a big part of its natural gas reserves.

Russia is after Ukraine’s energy. It also wants to use the control of Ukraine's energy to engage in energy siege warfare against the population.

The electricity has been shut off or damaged across large swaths of the country. It is cold in Ukraine. It is even more difficult and psychologically disturbing to hear bombs dropping and people screaming when everything is dark.

Banking and fuel distribution becomes mostly impossible without electricity. Most petrol uses electricity to pump it from the storage tanks at a station into vehicles. ATMs need electricity. Medical and other emergency services can’t respond as well and as quickly when there is no electricity.

Battery and other storage systems might have been, and could still be, set up to replace the lost power from Ukraine’s electricity grid in many areas, but satellite and other photos at night over the country show that there is not enough storage.

The Russians have attacked and may further attack nuclear power stations in the country. Nuclear power has been a large source of electricity in the country. Controlling Ukraine’s nuclear power stations means Russia has greater control over the sources of electricity in the country but also creates a threat to the country and others.

Nuclear power is statistically one of the safest power sources when measured as deaths and injuries per megawatt-hour of production. Nuclear incidents are single point incidents that are well publicized all over the world. Incidents in coal mines, and oil and gas fields are dispersed and not that well publicized.

Over time the facts show that many more people have died from coal, oil, and gas incidents than in nuclear incidents. Look it up if you wish. Start with the massive numbers of people who have died or have been injured in coal mines. Nuclear power produces much fewer emissions across its supply chain than fossil fuels.

However, the recent attacks on power plants by Russia in Ukraine have changed the perceptions of the safety of nuclear plants. An armed attack near a nuclear plant makes the plant quite vulnerable.

The world should watch and understand what is happening to Ukraine in this energy war.

Dr. Paul Sullivan

Destroying the containment vessel that holds the actual fission activity makes things very difficult. The plant could be shut down to protect against further damage and threats.

But one big potential problem is what happens with the cooling systems for the spent fuel and for the area where fission has been occurring. Both places need constant cooling to stop bigger accidents from happening. If the cooling stops, then an event such as Fukushima could happen.

The explosion at the Fukushima plant was not a nuclear one, but a hydrogen one. The fuel was not cooled. As it heated the cooling water the water boiled off. As it boiled off there was less cooling potential. As it boiled off hydrogen built up inside one of the buildings. The result was the explosion many of you saw. If the cooling in the many Ukrainian plants is not taken care of, an accident may happen.

There are some uranium fields in the middle of the country. Watch the Russians go after those. Some of the country’s best areas for wind, solar, and hydropower could also be targets for the Russians. But attacking wind and solar farms is not exactly a source of mass disaster, other than losing the power. However, hydropower attacks could lead to mass casualty events.

Ukraine has been building up its solar and wind power potentials over the last few years. Most of the wind power potential is in the southwestern part of the country, which Russia covets. The solar and hydro potentials are all over the country and less concentrated, but still likely desirable to the Russians.

Ukraine was planning to have its electricity system connected to the European Network of Transmission System Operators, an EU electricity system, by 2023. It wanted to disconnect its electricity from Russia’s systems. That is another aspect of this attack that should make some think.

Before the war, Ukraine got 50 percent of its petrol from Belarus. The country relies a lot on Russia for its oil. It has a huge natural gas storage potential and a large potential to produce natural gas, but, alas, some of the battle zones are near these areas.

Nordstream 2 was meant to redirect natural gas coming from Russia to the EU across the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine. This is another part of the energy war against Ukraine.

The world should watch and understand what is happening to Ukraine in this energy war. Such things could happen to many other places – and have happened to many other places. Think of recent wars in the Middle East, and even World War I and World War II.

The relative resilience of solar, wind and other renewables may cause some to reconsider what energy systems to use. There could also be a drive toward smaller microgrids and mini grids that can link and delink from the main grid. Self-healing grids should get more focus. There could also be drives toward more resilient pipelines and other liquid and gaseous fuels transport and delivery.

The world should be thinking more about energy resilience in times of stress and conflict.

• Dr. Paul Sullivan is a senior research associate at KFCRIS and non-resident fellow, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view