Ukraine appeals to the world for help keeping the lights on

 “Everything depends on where the shell lands,” said Stankin Dmytro, 38, who lives in Kyiv with his wife and 6-year-old son. “The last two times they landed nearby and hit a local substation. We had about 12 hours with no electricity, water and heating.”

And every night, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are plunged into darkness, with streetlights switched off to save energy. The hum of generators, a lifeline for many Ukrainians and businesses, echoes across the streets.

As the attacks continue, Ukrainian repair teams with more than 1,000 technicians are in a race to fix blown-up substations and power lines before yet another wave of Russian strikes, according to the state-owned company that oversees the power grid, Ukrenergo.

Company officials believe Russian engineers who know the vulnerable points in Ukraine’s electricity system most likely advised the Russian military on its targeting.

“In my opinion, they consulted with Russian electrical engineers,” said Volodymyr Kudrystski, the chairman of the board at Ukrenergo. “Who else would understand how the Ukrainian power network functions and would have knowledge about the factors that might distort the operation of the power system?”

Ukraine’s security service said a Russian “agent” has been detained for allegedly passing coordinates of critical infrastructure sites to Moscow, including power generation plants in the Kyiv region.

The Russian missile campaign against the electricity grid “is not only a contest between Ukrainian air defense systems and Russian missiles, but also between Russian engineers and Ukrainian engineers,” Kudrystski said.

Image: A student uses light from a phone to study in a school's shelter, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 21
A student uses light from a phone to study in a school’s shelter in Kyiv on Dec. 21, 2022. Laura Boushnak / The New York Times / Redux

Russian shelling has killed five Ukrenergo engineers as they were trying to repair the network, and nine have been wounded, he said.

The energy company has reached out to governments around the world and hundreds of private companies in Europe, North American and Asia to secure crucial equipment, Kudrystski said.

For Ukraine’s grid, the coin of the realm is the auto-transformer, a 200-ton piece of equipment that converts high-voltage electricity from a power plant to lower voltage for the end user. The transformers aren’t easy to come by, and foreign utility companies don’t have a large surplus at hand, Kudrystski said.

“We need to find this equipment abroad. And unfortunately, we do not have time to wait until it will be manufactured,” he said. “The Russians are shelling specific items of equipment that take time to be manufactured and delivered to Ukraine.”

It can take 10 months from the time it is ordered for a new transformer to come online, he said.

Ukraine’s request for auto-transformers at the moment focuses mainly on Soviet-era equipment in Eastern European countries, which is more compatible with Ukraine’s high-voltage network. But Ukraine is also trying to plan for the medium term, and it has ordered new transformers from companies in the U.S. and Asia, according to Ukrenergo.

“We know how to ensure that the grid will be running in the future and how to prevent humanitarian catastrophe for tens of millions of people during winter,” Kudrystski said. “But in order to do that, we need some help.”

U.S. assistance

Kudrystski was among a group of senior Ukrainian officials who met in Kyiv this week with a high-level Biden administration delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would work with Congress to provide an additional $125 million in funding “to support Ukraine’s energy and electricity grid against Russia’s continued attacks on utilities and other civilian infrastructure.”

In November, the Biden administration said Washington would deliver $53 million to help secure critical power grid equipment for Ukraine, and the first batch of supplies arrived last month, according to the State Department. 

But the logistics of transporting massive auto-transformers has proved daunting, the senior U.S. administration official said, and it has presented government agencies with an unfamiliar challenge. 

“This equipment is not lying around. It’s not stockpiled in many places. It’s made to order,” the official said.

The larger transformers are too big to be ferried by air and have to disassembled and placed on ships, the official said.

Water and cellphones

The attack on the country’s electricity grid has had a knock-on effect for other infrastructure, including water supplies and mobile phone service.

Aid groups worried that the orchestrated offensive against Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure would trigger a total shutdown of the grid with catastrophic consequences in winter. But Ukraine’s utility companies have improvised solutions, and an unusually mild winter in Europe so far has helped ease the pressure on the power supply, aid workers said.

Rolling power cuts have yet to disrupt the flow of humanitarian cash assistance from aid groups, with money wired into bank accounts or post office accounts, said Michael Young, the country director in Ukraine for the international humanitarian aid group Mercy Corps.

“If the grid goes down in any substantive way, what happens to that electronic banking system? So far, it’s been resilient — but we also need to prepare for the contingency that it may not work, at least partially, should there be a major impact on the grid,” Young said.

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