The paradox that threatens the post-coal future of UkraineGlobal Voices
This article by Nazarii Vivcharyk appeared on Open Democracy on December 15, 2021. It is reposted as part of a content sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.
For power station manager Oleksiy Bida, a post-coal future in Ukraine is a “political decision,” he tells me as he walks me around the coal-fired power station that powers 70 percent of buildings and residences in the area. audience in the central city of Ukraine. of Cherkassy.
Cherkassy, ââhome to just under 300,000 people on the banks of the huge Dnipro River that runs through the country, is one of the many cities that rely primarily on coal-fired power in Ukraine. But that could be called into question with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pledge at COP26 that the country, like several others, will stop using coal by 2035. It remains to be seen how this pledge translates into practice, including included in Cherkassy.
Bida says its plant is ready to use natural gas instead, but that even if it is “technically possible” it will be “unprofitable for our business and consumers, there will be a significant price increase”.
For a transition to alternative energy, the Cherkassy power plant will need investment, according to Bida, and it is already struggling to source coal in Ukraine itself. The country’s mines in Donbass once provided it, but since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, many of them are now in occupied or flooded territory. âWe now have a situation where we have the money for the coal, but we cannot buy it,â he remarks.
Rising prices for consumers, problems with infrastructure and supply, technology, investment and political will are just a few of the problems on the difficult path to Ukraine’s post-coal future. . Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an energy transition in a country which frequently appears in the midst of an energy crisis. But with Ukraine slated to stop using coal in just 14 years, the discussion must begin today.
The view from Cherkassy
Ukraine is famous for its coal, or at least it used to be. The country’s mining region, Donbass, supplied the best quality coal from the Soviet Union and then independent Ukraine. Today, following the war in eastern Ukraine, some 39 of the mines in Donbass are flooded, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This translates into supply and quality problems, and they are already being felt in Cherkassy, ââwhich has problems with pollution and low temperatures.
“The situation in Ukraine as a whole, and here in Cherkassy, ââis critical,” said Anatoly Bondarenko, head of the city council of Cherkassy recently. “We don’t have enough coal, and the coal that was imported from Poland does not have the right calorific value, and therefore our buildings are often cold.”
Pavlo Karas, director of the city’s public energy infrastructure company, recently reported that with the abandonment of coal by the Ukrainian government, the Cherkassy coal-fired power plant will last another ten to twenty years before it is shut down. . The Karas business runs on gas and heats a much smaller number of houses in town, but it has a central heating plant that could be rebuilt and put back into service.
Yet the current heating problems in Cherkassy seem to overshadow the long-term picture, according to Viktor Bezzubenko, the deputy mayor: âOur plant can run on gas and coal, but they get half the coal they need in this way. right now – they need 60,000 tonnes a month, and they get 30,000. And so to keep the city warm, we have to use gas, and it’s relatively expensive.
Indeed, Bida, claims that his factory does indeed have the funds to buy coal, but cannot get the quality material it needs: âWe wrote to the state mines, we wanted to buy Ukrainian coal from Pavlohrad. as before, but unfortunately we couldn’t. “
In addition, the introduction of new market processes in the Ukrainian energy sector is still in its infancy – and has had negative effects, according to expert Viktor Kurtev. âThe system is not only technically unbalanced, it is also financially unbalanced,â he said, highlighting the large debts between Ukrainian energy companies. âThe energy management system has been destroyed, and we’re not just talking about the oligarchs here. It is also the responsibility of the government.
President Zelenskyy, for his part, recently called on Ukrainian companies and the media to stop disseminating information about the problems of coal and gas supply. âAt some point our angelic patience will come to an end,â he said, âand for some a hellish period will begin. “
openDemocracy has asked the Ukrainian Energy Ministry for its position on the country’s commitment to stop using coal. The ministry said Ukraine’s commitment to phase-out “does not contain strict obligations and does not mean a radical rejection of coal,” but will lead to “a dialogue between governments , businesses and local authorities on the abandonment of coal “. in a sustainable and economically inclusive manner â.
This, the ministry said, would mean an end to “the unpaid use of coal for energy production.”
More coal for a post-coal future
Indeed, Ukraine faces a paradox: on the one hand, the country is sorely lacking in coal to run its power plants – and on the other hand, it must prepare for a situation where it is in dire need of electricity. less coal than today. That is, if he wants to meet his phase-out goal of 2035 and the president’s goal of climate neutrality by 2060.
Outside of Cherkassy, ââthere are faint signs of possible solutions to the energy crisis – although they are out of step with central government commitments. The town of Vatutin, which has a population of around 15,000 and around 100 km from Cherkassy, ââis about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the closure of its coal mines, although, as local residents tell me, there are still reasons to consider reopening them.
Although the city had its own coal mining complex, it did not have the quality of Donbass coal, so Vatutin also operated a coal briquette factory, says Vasyl Cherkashyn, a miner with two decades of experience. These briquettes were not only used to heat the city, but also the villages outside. Since the mines closed in the late 1990s, “they have collapsed or flooded, and the briquette factory has been taken down for scrap.”
Although the Cherkassy region had its own coal reserves, it eventually opted for Russian gas as its main source of energy, which was high profile at the time, says Yuri Hromovskyi, a former deputy of the regional council, born in Vatoutine. âAt first it was fine, because [Russian] gas was cheaper. But then we started arguing, shouldn’t we go back to coal mining somewhere nearby? After all, we still import coal from South America, etc.
On a smaller scale, the village of Stepantsy, further north of Tcherkassy, ââis experimenting with alternatives to coal. To cope with its own heating problems, the village now produces its own heating pellets from the surrounding woods.
“The price of pellets now reaches about 6,000 hryvnya [about $220] per ton. It’s cheaper than gas or electricity, âexplains Volodymyr Mitsuk, head of the association of local authorities in the Cherkassy region, who recently called on village administrations in the region to switch to forms of alternative energy.
Oleksandr Yaremenko, village chief of Stepantsy, tells me that although the pellets do not cover the heating needs of the whole village – they still have to use gas and charcoal – this year they have focused on fuels made by themselves, given the problems with coal and gas. to supply. Ahead of the next heating season in 2022, he says the village is working to shift public sector facilities to alternative fuels.
Elsewhere in the region, there are 33 solar power plants and 13 small hydropower plants, although some of the solar power plants connected to the Ukrainian national electricity grid do not meet the needs of the region. âFor some people, it’s business or just additional financial support. Those who have additional energy sell it to the center and receive money for it, âexplains Serhiy Chuban, director of infrastructure at the Cherkassy regional administration.
At the same time, Ukraine’s Energy Ministry said it was working on increasing the country’s atomic energy capacity and integrating alternative energies. Indeed, it now plans to build new nuclear generators according to its own plans, in collaboration with the American company Westinghouse. The town of Orbita in the Cherkassy region, which houses an unfinished reactor, is among those plans.
So, as energy prices continue to rise – and Ukrainians still face fuel poverty – Ukraine awaits new supplies of coal and imports of energy from Belarus. The Ukrainian government’s plans for the new generation of energy are important – but until they are implemented, they are just that: plans.