Former Soviet republic bids for independence from Russian fossil fuels
Wind and solar power are wallflowers in oil- and gas-rich Russia. Not so in neighbouring Ukraine. With fears about Russian hegemony at a peak, the former Soviet republic is ready to join the renewables revolution.
“Energy independence has become a matter of national security for Ukraine,” says Sergiy Savchuk, head of the state agency on energy efficiency and energy saving in Kiev. “That’s why renewable-energy development is now a priority issue for the Ukrainian government.”
In July, Ukrainian environment minister Ostap Semerak unveiled plans to build a large solar power plant and a biogas facility in the wasteland around the former Chernobyl reactor.
The announcement came just two weeks after parliament reopened the state-owned exclusion zone around the shuttered nuclear site to development for business and science.
The Chernobyl energy project will cost around US$1.1 billion, a sum that means substantial foreign investment is required. It is part of Ukraine’s broader ambition to step up renewable-energy capacity. According to the National Renewable Energy Action Plan adopted in 2014, the government aims to almost triple capacity for electricity production, transport and heating by 2020—from its current level of around 9.3 gigawatts to more than 26 gigawatts. Renewables would then supply about 11% of all energy consumed in Ukraine.
Despite the traumatic Chernobyl reactor meltdown in 1986, which contaminated large parts of Europe and tempered Ukraine’s nuclear ambitions, the country continues to produce about 50% of its electricity from a fleet of 15 Soviet-built nuclear reactors.
Ukraine also depends heavily on oil and natural gas imported from Russia. But political turmoil over Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2013 and ongoing pro-Russian unrest in the eastern Donbas region led to the strategic rethink. Already, Ukraine has reduced its reliance on Russian fossil fuels, cutting consumption of natural gas by about one-third since 2013.
Ukraine has significant untapped renewable-energy potential, finds a 2015 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates—enough to support the 2014 plan. The largest country to lie entirely within Europe (Turkey and Russia are mostly in Asia), it gets more sunshine than Germany, where photo-voltaic solar power now exceeds 40 gigawatts.
Ukraine also has good grid infrastructure, including high-voltage transmission lines between Chernobyl and Kiev, says Dolf Gielen, director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Center in Bonn, Germany.
But the economic environment is less favourable, Gielen says. Electricity demand has declined in the years since the conflict with Russia escalated, and is mostly met by existing nuclear and fossil-fuel sources. More-over, the exceedingly high cost of investment in the politically unstable country might discourage potential backers. As the first phase of implementing the 2014 action plan, Ukraine is scheduled to build 51 solar-power and 15 wind-power projects—an endeavour that will cost an estimated $7 billion.